More of London’s murder streets: Acre Lane and Amen Court

Following on from the previous post, we can look at two more streets in London with gruesome pasts: Acre Lane in Brixton and Amen Court near St Paul’s Cathedral.

Acre Lane has two murders in its past: one 19th century and one 20th century. 

In 1853, an elderly man called William Jones was beaten to death in his home in Acre Lane. His late wife’s niece Elizabeth Vickers, who lived with him as a housekeeper, was apparently prone to drink and to beating Jones, who apparently died from one such attack. A bequest of £1,000 in the old man’s will was considered to be a sufficient motive for murder, but at trial Vickers was found not guilty.

On 9 May 1923, near the junction of Acre Lane and Baytree Road, Jacob Dickey, a taxi driver, was attacked in his cab and shot fatally. The murderer escaped by leaping over a fence leading to the back gardens of the Acre Lane houses and forcing his way through one of those houses into the street. 

An unusual walking stick left by the body eventually led police to an Alexander Mason, though evidence against him was less than watertight. He was sentenced to death but granted a reprieve.

The street name could indicate the size of a particular plot of land upon which the lane in Brixton stands.

At the back of Amen Court, which leads off Amen Corner, is part of a Roman wall that once formed the boundary of Newgate prison’s graveyard. Amen Court was the path leading to the graveyard and for a time had the cheerful sobriquet of Deadman’s Walk.

The court was said to be haunted by the ghost of Amelia Dyer, a Victorian mass murderer known as the Reading Baby Farmer. Dyer collected money to look after unwanted babies and then drowned them in the River Thames. She was executed in June 1896 and took her final stroll along Deadman’s Walk.

Dyer was the subject of a Victorian murder ballad, which included the lines:

The old baby farmer, the wretched Miss Dyer
At the Old Bailey her wages is paid.
In times long ago, we’d ha’ made a big fire
And roasted so nicely that wicked old jade.

There has been some speculation that Dyer, because she was alive at the time of the Jack the Ripper killings, was that murderer, killing prostitutes through botched abortions.

The names of the Corner and Court, as with the many other religious names in the area of St Paul’s Cathedral, are said to come from the fact that, before the Reformation, there was a regular procession of the clergy around the cathedral. This procession 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.


From Batty Street to Pinchin Street: murder sites of London

I’ve been feeling murderous of late – vicariously, I hasten to add; over the past few weeks I have been catching up on British television dramas that I missed the first time around. I am now up to date on Luther, Unforgotten, and have started on Whitechapel. 

Naturally, all these murderous thoughts drove me to my notes, in which there are a few murders, so I thought I would focus for a while on the darker history of some of London’s streets and kick off in the east.

We start with Pinchin Street (which I found after looking for the fictional – or disappeared – Pinchin Lane that appears in the Sign of the Four, both the Sherlock Holmes TV drama (with Jeremy Brett) and the book itself. 

Holmes says to Watson, “When you have dropped Miss Morstan I wish you to go on to 3 Pinchin Lane, down near the water’s edge at Lambeth.” When Watson goes there he finds: “Pinchin Lane was a row of shabby, two-storied brick houses in the lower quarter of Lambeth.”

The real Pinchin Street in Whitechapel is where, on the 10th of September 1889 a female torso was discovered under a railway bridge. The poor woman’s head and legs were never found, and she was never identified. Some bloodstained clothing was later found in Batty Street (which has its own murderous connection) but amounted to nothing in the investigation.

The brutality of the murder, the geographical location of the torso, and the fact that the time of death was estimated to be the day before – the one year anniversary of the murder by Jack the Ripper of Annie Chapman – led many to speculate that this was yet another notch on the Ripper’s belt. This theory, however, is generally discounted, there having been two similar murders earlier in the year, and not enough evidence to tie them to the Ripper killings.

As to the derivation of the name of Pinchin Street, it could be from the surname, which is of Old French origin.

Speaking of Batty Street, that has its own sinister association, the stuff of fiction: a locked room murder that took place here in 1887. Miriam Angel, one of the lodgers in a building at number 18 Batty Street was found dead in her locked room. She had been killed by the very unpleasant method of having nitric acid poured down her throat.

Another lodger, Israel Lipski, was discovered under her bed with acid burns in his mouth, so it was a pretty safe bet he was the culprit. He professed his innocence at first and was found guilty and sentenced to hang so swiftly that it aroused public outrage and claims of anti-semitism. 

This reaction led to Lipski’s execution being delayed while the Home Secretary and trial judge met to consider a reprieve. While the meeting was taking place, Lipski broke down and confessed his guilt to a rabbi, stressing that his motive was robbery and not, as the prosecution claimed, rape.. He was hanged in the prison at Newgate.

The origin of this street name is also uncertain but there was a William Batty who developed property in London so it could have been named for him. 

In Brick Lane, in 1888, a woman called Emma Smith was set upon, raped and beaten and, though she was able to make her way back to her lodging house, she later died of her injuries. Some people attributed her murder to Jack the Ripper, but that is considered unlikely, particularly as Emma had said that she was attacked by more than one man.

The name comes from the fact that in the 15th century, the earth in this area was suitable for brick and tile making and the area became a centre for that industry.

Just off Brick Lane was once Flower and Dean Street; while the street no longer exists, there is now a Flower and Dean Walk. The street was at the heart of the Jack the Ripper activities and it was, and is, considered to be where the Ripper may have lived.

Two of the Ripper’s victims lived in the street: Elizabeth (‘Long Liz’) Stride and Catherine Eddowes; coincidentally, they were murdered on the same night. Stride’s body was discovered in Berners Street; her throat was cut but she had sustained none of the Ripper’s trademark mutilations, which gave rise to speculation that the Ripper had been interrupted. He then went on to Mitre Square where he murdered Eddowes, whose body did not escape his customary atrocities.

The street name arises from the fact that the street was built by two bricklayers, John Flower and Gowen Dean, in the 1650s. In 1677 it was known as Dean and Flower Street and in 1702 the name was corrupted to Floodrun.

From parliament to idlers in London’s street names

Praisegod Barebone

Bring back names for parliament, I say. I’m not going to use this blog for political comment, but I thought I would keep it topical today and I did what I usually do: refer to my notes to see what London streets have to offer me on topical items. (Bear with me, street names do feature here eventually.)

Between my notes and Wikipedia, I have come up with the fact that there were 25 parliaments between 1604 and 1690. There are some wonderful names in the list, including the Blessed Parliament, the Happy Parliament, the Useless Parliament, the Rump Parliament, and the Barebones Parliament (also known as the Little, or Nominated, Parliament).

The Rump Parliament was set up following the Civil War when the New Model Army wanted to prevent a treaty to reinstate Charles I. In December of 1648 the army prevented 231 known supporters of the treaty from entering the House, and imprisoned 45 for a short time. The remaining free members then became the Rump Parliament.

However, the Rump Members soon showed that their main concern was to create legislation that would ensure the survival of Parliament. Oliver Cromwell lost patience after learning that Members was attempting to stay in session despite an agreement to dissolve the Parliament. He attended a sitting and lambasted the Rump Members, with a speech often quoted as: “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!”

Fetter Lane.jpgThe Barebones Parliament was then convened with ‘godly’ men chosen by Cromwell. The name came from one of the members, a godly by name and godly by nature man called Praisegod Barebone, a fierce anti-royalist and supporter of Cromwell. Pamphlets of strong opinion and language usually flew around from and in answer to Barebone. 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”.

And here is where London streets come into it (“Finally!” I hear you cry.): Praisegod Barebones once lived in Fetter Lane, the name of which has many possible sources, including the words faiter, faitour, faytor, felter, and fewter.

The lane was 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”.

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

Shoe Lane.jpgOther theories include the idea that the name may have come from the lance vests worn on cuirasses (also known as fetters): many armourers had workshops in the area. One final theory is that the name derived from ‘felter’ – makers of felt also carried on their business in the lane.

Barebones also lived in Shoe Lane, the name of which also has many interesting theories. An early reference to it 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.

Seasonal London names: Snow Hill and Spring Street

This morning, while I was out walking the dogs I found a huge crop of snowdrops on the river bank, which cheered me up immensely. I know they’re called snowdrops because they flower in the winter and can cope with low temperatures but they always make me think of spring and I fool myself momentarily that the weather will be getting warmer now. My early years in the tropics has left me still sullen about winter and seasons in general (give me warmth all year round), so to cheer myself up I have rushed to my text to see what London can offer me. It didn’t disappoint, providing me with both Snow Hill and Spring Street.

Snow Hill, however, has nothing to do with snow and most London historians, while calling it a name of unknown origin, have also put forward many theories. 

The street which originally followed a rather circuitous route, was known as ‘Snore Hylle’ as early as the reign of Henry III, and therein lies more than one tale.

Snore, apparently, could have come from a Scandinavian trader called Snorro who lived there. It could also have come from the Celtin word ‘snuadh’, a brook, because the hill once led to the Fleet River. Or it could be that, because of the hill’s winding nature, the name derives from an old word meaning ‘twist’.

There is another theory that is much more fun, however unlikely. The Saracens Head inn at Snow Hill (demolished in 1868) was a coaching inn dating back to the time of Richard the Lionheart (who stopped there when he came back from the Crusades and gave the landlord permission so to name it). Passengers arriving at the tavern after travelling a long way would generally, by then, be sound asleep and snoring, giving rise to the hill’s earlier name.

The steepness of the hill made it ideal for one particular, non-commendable, 18th-century pastime. Groups of young men (called Mohocks, from the Mowhawk Indians) would seize elderly women, put them in tubs or barrels, and roll them to the bottom of the hill; they would also upend coaches onto rubbish heaps.

At one point, in 1715, it was not a good place to pass if you were not a Jacobite supporter: a group of Jacobites congregated at the bottom of the hill, toasting the memory of James. If any passers-by were foolish enough to decline to join in the toast, they were stripped.

Snow Hill historically was the site of one of the City of London conduits and on days of great celebration it was made to run with red and white wine. Sadly, this tradition is no longer upheld.

Snow Hill is where John Bunyan died in 1688, at the sign of the Star, a shop run by his grocer friend Mr Strudwich.

From snow to spring: Spring Street near Paddington Station takes its name from water. (I used to work nearby and spent far too much time round in the corner in the pub we immaturely referred to as the Sawyer’s Armpits.) The Bayswater area, with springs, reservoirs, and conduits, once supplied much of the City of London with water.

What’s in a name? Petticoat Lane and Of Alley

I had my knuckles rapped metaphorically by a Twitter bot – did I really just write that? – someone who has taken to Twitter to take umbrage at Madame D’Arblay, née Frances Burney, being referred to as Fanny in yesterday’s post on Half Moon Street. What’s the big deal, I wondered, what’s in a name? That made me think of some of the ‘proper’ names in London that are not nearly as much fun as their previous names.

Let’s start with the obvious: Middlesex Street. Boring, eh? Don’t most people know it as Petticoat Lane? I used to live in Reading where there was a passage properly called Union Street but commonly known (because of a long-term fishmonger there) as Smelly Alley. It was years before I learned that it was really Union Street.

Similarly, I remember trying to find Petticoat Lane in a London A-Z and discovering that it was really Middlesex Street. Yawn. Why, in 1830, Petticoat Lane was renamed I don’t know, but apparently the lane was once a boundary between the City of London and the county of Middlesex. 

There is a history of renaming the lane: in the 14th century this was a country lane called Berwardes Lane, after the local landowner. By the 16th century it ran through a pig farm and was renamed Hog Lane.

It then, presumably through a combination pf the French silk weavers who settled in the area and the secondhand clothes dealers who established this as the centre of London’s used clothes district, became Petticoat Lane.

One of my favourite sources for information on London street names is a 19th-century writer called FH Habben who wrote a book called London street names; their origin, signification, and historic value, published in 1896. He (like the abovementioned bot) could be a little testy at times, particularly when it came to the meaningless renaming of streets and believed this to be an “instance of inappropriate name change”. He ignored the whole rag trade, stating firmly that the name came from the English form of petit court, a little short lane.”

York Place.jpgAnother favourite name of mine that has, again I have no idea why, been changed from fun to boring is Of Alley, which is now York Place and was once part of the house and gardens belonging to George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham. Both of them: father and son, royalists both, who were the first two holders of the title of Duke of Buckingham, and both called George Villiers.

The second duke, a loyal follower of Charles II, fled the country with his king when England became an unhealthy place for them. Although his property was confiscated by Cromwell’s Parliament, Villiers regained it after the Restoration and own return to England.

The property didn’t do him much good: Villiers junior managed to run up so much in the way of debt that he was forced to sell his land. In 1674 it became the possession of a property developer on the condition that the streets built on the land were given Villers’ name. All of them. There were five in total, and they became George Street, Villiers Street, Duke Street (now gone), Of Alley, and Buckingham Street.

At least the street signs there still proclaim that it is York Place, formerly Of Alley.

Half Moon Street, Fanny Burney, and Jane Austen

fanny burneyI noticed the other day that the 18th-century historian – let me rephrase that – expert on
18th-century history, Catherine Curzon, aka @MadameGilflurt on Twitter, commented on the fact that Fanny Burney had died on that day (6th January) in 1840. 

By coincidence, a couple of days later, on my way to exercise class (that’s not a smug new-year’s-resolution type comment, I’ve been going to that class for a while) I noticed the new moon hovering just above the horizon. It was a mere sliver of light but looked huge that evening: a spectacular sight.

half-moon-street-21Yes, there really is a connection between those two observations, and this is where I beg the indulgence of my more loyal readers who may have seen some of this text on earlier occasions, and it is that Fanny Burney once lived in Half Moon Street.

The street, which was built in 1730, takes its name from an old ale house that stood at the corner and was still standing in 1780. Although not quite as common as the sun, the moon is used in many tavern signs. The half moon could be representative of the Virgin Mary: a crescent moon is sometimes shown under her feet in pictures of the Assumption.

Other famous (and real) residents of Half Moon Street include James Boswell, Henry James, William Hazlitt, and Somerset Maugham, who said in 1930 that the street was “sedate and respectable”.

There were also various fictional residents of the street, including Bulldog Drummond, a gentleman adventurer; Algernon Moncreiff from Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest; and PG Wodehouse’s Bertie Wooster, who had a flat there where he was looked after by the unflappable Jeeves.

But back to Fanny Burney, later Madame D’Arblay, who was an extraordinary woman. She was a talented and gifted – and largely self-taught – 18th century writer. She was also, as one writer describes it, “a morally upright figure in the decaying court circles of King George III in his later, deranged years.”

Fanny, whose grave demeanour earned her the family nickname of ‘the Old Lady’ when she was about eleven, was small, slender, and short-sighted. She was educated at home, but was teased by her brother because, at the age of eight, she did not know her letters.

darblay stA quick learner, Fanny became an avid reader and writer; she wrote a novel (The History of Caroline Evelyn) when she was ten, but possibly burned that and other writings when she was fifteen and trying to “to combat this writing passion”. In Fanny’s time, women were not supposed to spend time writing more than the occasional letter.

The family had moved to London when Fanny was about six, and lived in Poland Street where her father, who was closely acquainted with Samuel Johnson and David Garrick, worked as a music teacher. When Fanny was twelve, her sisters went with their father to France; it was feared that Fanny, who was close to her French – and Catholic –grandmother, might succumb to Catholicism. Undeterred, Fanny taught herself French.

She began a diary, the first entry of which is dated 27 March 1768, and experimented with different literary styles. Under a cloak of extreme secrecy she later began writing her first novel, Evelina, apparently composed in part of “disjointed scraps and fragments” she had assembled in 1772, as a sequel to The History of Caroline Evelyn. She wrote the manuscript in a disguised hand, and approached a publisher under the name of Mr King.

Following an unsuccessful first attempt, Fanny, along with her siblings and a cousin who had been taken into her confidence, approached the Fleet Street bookseller Thomas Lowndes, who agreed to publish the book. The book became popular, though it was some time before even her father learned the identity of the author. Samuel Johnson was a great admirer of the book, saying that it was better than the efforts of both Henry Fielding and Samuel Richardson.

In her lifetime Fanny did enjoy commercial success. Her book Cecilia, or Memoirs of an Heiress was reprinted it at least twice within a year and her book Camilla, or, A Picture of Youth, sold out all 4,000 copies within a few months of publication. She was an inspiration to many writers, including Jane Austen, who was a great admirer. Austen took the title Pride and Prejudice from the final paragraph of Cecilia, in which the capitalised phrase ‘PRIDE and PREJUDICE’ recurs three times.

Fanny married Alexandre-Jean-Baptiste Piochard D’Arblay on 28 July 1793, relatively late in life. Her father did not attend the wedding, having expressed disapproval of his daughter marrying a penniless foreigner. The couple remained happily married and had one son.

Apart from her literary successes, Fanny should also go down in history as a woman of huge courage, having written the earliest known patient’s perspective of a mastectomy – in her case, performed without anaesthetic.

In this harrowing description, penned several months after the operation and taking her three months to write it as she relived the agony, she wrote:

“Yet — when the dreadful steel was plunged into the breast – cutting through veins – arteries – flesh – nerves – I needed no injunctions not to restrain my cries. I began a scream that lasted unintermittingly during the whole time of the incision – & I almost marvel that it rings not in my Ears still, so excruciating was the agony.”

The pain, she told her sister, continued after the cut had been made, when the delicate area became exposed to air; the ordeal was by no means over at that point as the surgeon needed yet to “separate the bottom, the foundation of this dreadful gland from the parts to which it adhered”, at which point, “I then felt the knife (rack)ling against the breast bone – scraping it!”

This is but a small portion of the letter, not for the faint-hearted, in which she also urges Esther and her daughters not to wait as long as she had with any similar health concerns. Ironically, Fanny outlived most of her family, including her husband, son, sister, and one of her nieces.

There is memorial window to Fanny at Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey, and London’s oldest surviving plaque for a woman was erected in 1885 at her residence in Mayfair’s Bolton Street. According to English Heritage, “It is a sign of the times in which it was made that its inscription gives greater prominence to her married name – Madame D’Arblay – than to the one by which posterity knows her.”

Portland Street,  near Poland Street where Fanny lived as a child, was renamed D’Arblay Street and, apart from Half Moon Street, Fanny also lived in Lower Sloane Street, Mount Street, and Grosvenor Street.

Update on baths and Roman graffiti

Following on from yesterday’s post I have discovered, and been told, a few interesting things. 

First, London guide Dave tells me: “Minor correction – but excavations have found five Roman bath houses in the London area (more probably remain to be discovered) – the ones in Cheapside were relatively small, and perhaps reserved for use by the Roman Army. The main baths (at least in the early years of Roman London) were the ones found in the Huggin Hill excavations – they were really rather impressive. Two smaller baths (probably private ones) have been found in Pudding Lane and the nearby Billingsgate Roman House and Baths (hopefully open to the public again this year. The other big set of baths (official building – perhaps used by the Roman Governor) were in Southwark – under what is now the remains of Winchester Palace.

Huggin Hill, Pudding Lane and Billinsgate, incidentally, have all been or will be covered in this blog.

Second, I have found a discrepancy in my own notes, whereby the Roman tile decrying Austalis’s shenanigans is described as having been found both in a Roman bath in Cheapside and in Newgate Street. There are many references to the ‘Austalis tile’ in various learned tomes, but none say where it was found, other than that it was once in the Guildhall Museum (now part of the Museum of London).

This little snippet of Roman history has been translated in different ways in the various sources I have read; let’s give the last word to Robin George Collingwood who was an English philosopher, historian and archaeologist and, during his time, a leading authority on Roman Britain. In An Inventory of the Historical Monuments in London, Volume 3, Roman London, originally published by His Majesty’s Stationery Office, London, 1928, there is ‘Appendix 2: Inscriptions of Roman London By R. G. Collingwood’.

In this appendix, with an illustration of the tile, Collingwood says, “Tile with graffito (Plate 63 and Fig. 87), done with a stick when the clay was wet. From Warwick Lane, Newgate Street [Guildhall Museum Cat., p. 72; Ephem, Epigr., VII, 1141]. “Austalis (i.e., Augustalis) has been AVSTALIS going off by himself every day for these DIBVS XIII 13 days.” The Latin is unclassical, but VAGATVRSIB the sense is clear; a workman is calling COTIDIM attention of the continual absence of a fellow-workman.”

I wonder if the crisp packets and other discarded items that we found behind our bath panel when we had to remove it for a plumbing issue will be of interest to archaeologists in later years as an example of ancient workmen and their habits.