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.

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London’s shape streets: from Acre Lane to Kensington Gore

Recently I did a ‘size matters’ theme of London street names – more length than size, actually, which included Long Acre. As I sat here today mentally chaining myself to my computer (I will get this licked into shape so it is a publishable book) I thought, ‘what about Acre Lane?’ And are there other area-related streets, I wondered. There are certainly many shape-related streets, of which this is one.

The derivation of the name is uncertain but it could have indicated the size or shape of a particular plot of land upon which the lane now stands.

In any case, it is also one of the many streets of London with a gruesome past.

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.

Another death associated with the lane is that of William Jones; his late wife’s niece Elizabeth Vickers lived with him as a housekeeper. Vickers was apparently prone to drink and to beating Jones, who eventually 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.

(Incidentally, I overlooked Baytree Road in the post on tree-related street names. It takes its name from a house that was called Baytrees, presumably because there were some.)

Streets that take their name from size or shape include (apart from Long Acre and Acre Lane) Bow Street, Diamond Street, and Turnagain Lane, to mention but a few. These have all been covered elsewhere in this blog, but in brief:

Bow Street was built in 1637 and given its name because it looked like a bent bow. (Bow Lane has nothing to do with its shape: the church was originally called St Mary de Arcubus from the arches upon which it was built.)

Diamond Street could take its name from the fact that it forms one side of a small ‘square’ that could be considered roughly diamond-shaped.

Turnagain Lane was once called ‘Windagain Lane’ according to that font of knowledge John Stow, because “it goeth down west to Fleet dike, from whence men must turn again the same way they came, for there it stopped”.

There was also once an Elbow Lane which, like Turnagain Lane, was a street that ran west and then suddenly turned south and, according to Stow, was “therefore of that bending called Elbow Lane”.

I know I joke about tenuous links but even I would go so far as to include names that are [Something] Cresent, [Something] Square or [Something] Circle, but there is a Triangle Place not that far from Acre Lane.

Triangles take us to Kensington Gore and Gore Street. The word ‘gore’ in this case 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 had been ploughed.

Happily, there is blood involved, albeit indirectly, in a name crying out for it: a retired British pharmacist, John Tinegate, used to make fake blood for the stage and screen and it was trademarked Kensington Gore. The term has now become a generic term for fake blood.

And, finally, there is The Square in Hammersmith (which is in the shape of a square) and Pentagram Yard in Bayswater, but I have no idea where that name came from.