From Bleeding Heart Yard to Snow Hill: London streets in The Ingoldsby Legends

I keep promising to look at myth and legend in London street names; that’s still on the cards, but let’s start with The Ingoldsby Legends, a 19th-century collection of myths, legends, ghost stories and poetry written (and invented) for the purposes of satirizing topics of the time. One of these ‘legends’ was ‘The House Warming!! A legend of Bleeding Heart Yard’ and purports to explain the name of this little courtyard.

The story centres around the beautiful wife of Sir Christopher Hatton, who was a real person and a favourite of Queen Elizabeth I (though he never married). Alice Fanshawe had sold her soul to the devil in order to advance herself and her husband, with the result that the queen confiscated the place of the Bishop of Ely to give to the couple – hence the housewarming party.

While the festivities were going on, the devil, who had become lazy, realized that Alice’s account was long overdue, and he hastened to the party, where he bounds in and capers around, knocking over furniture and scattering the food and drink. He grasps Alice’s hand (which caused her arm to shrivel), and leads her in a frantic dance that ends with them performing a grand pirouette from which they never return.

The following morning, the house is in ruins, there is a hole the shape of a hoof in the roof (that sounds like something out of Dr Seuss), and there is no sign, then or ever, of poor Lady Hatton.

“But out in the court-yard – and just in that part
Where the pump stands – lay bleeding a LARGE HUMAN HEART!”

There were also traces of blood and brains on the pump, as though a head had been smashed against it. The pump was replaced, yet on some moonlit nights a ‘Lady in White’ could be seen pumping endlessly and fruitlessly.

“And hence many passengers now are debarr’d
From proceeding at nightfall through Bleeding Heart Yard!”

Apart from telling us how the yard got its name, Ingoldsby mentions various other streets, all of which deserve some mention as part of our legend theme.

Ely Place, once a seat of the Bishop of Ely, was indeed occupied by Sir Christopher Hatton, and was famous for its gardens, which produced a fine crop of strawberries. Shakespeare makes reference to this in Richard III, when Richard says, “My lord of Ely, when I was last in Holborn,I saw good strawberries in your garden there.”

When guests are arriving at (and fleeing from) the Hattons’ housewarming party, the streets along which they travel are listed: the Strand, Chancery Lane, Shoe Lane, Cheapside, St Mary-le-Bow, Fewtar’s (corrupted to Fetter) Lane, Bishopsgate Street, Dowgate Hill, Budge Row, Snore Hille (which we have since whitewashed to Snow), Holborn Hill, Fleet Ditch, Harp Alley, and Gray’s Inn.

Let’s look at them all in order, starting with the Strand. This name is of Saxon origin, meaning ‘water’s edge” and is mentioned by name in the Saxon Chronicle; apparently it is recorded that this is where Earl Godwin and his son Harold drew up their land forces in the insurrection that they headed against Edward the Confessor in 1052.

Chancery Lane takes its name either from the fact that a building in the lane was used to store the Rolls of Chancery, the Chancellors’ official documents. The present name came into use during the reign of Elizabeth I and could also have been an abbreviation of Chancellors Lane. Another theory is that the name comes from ‘cancelli’ – lattice screen – which once divided the court of Chancery from the court of Common Pleas when they shared the Law Courts in Westminster.

There is an early reference to Shoe Lane 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.

Cheapside comes from the Anglo-Saxon ‘ceap’, to buy or barter. West Cheap, as it was known, to distinguish it from Eastcheap, was one of the busiest thoroughfares in London and the city’s main food market. The medieval grocery shopper would have gone there for staples such as Bread, Milk, Honey, and Fish, and the streets that lead off Cheapside were named for their specialities. 

St Mary-le-Bow is the church in Bow Lane, destroyed in the Great Fire and rebuilt by Christopher Wren. Traditionally someone is only a Cockney if they are born within the sound of the church’s bells. The name of Bow Lane has nothing to do with its shape: the church was originally called St Mary de Arcubus from the arches, which are shaped like bows, upon which it was built.

The church of St-Mary-le-Bow

Fetter Lane we looked at not long ago, but at the risk of boring with repetition, here are some of the possible derivations of the name. The lane was once 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”.

There is also the theory that the name could have come from the ‘faitours’ – fortune tellers who were prevalent in medieval and Elizabeth times. The name may have come from the lance vests worn on cuirasses (also known as fetters) because of the armorers whose workshops were located there. One final theory is that the name derived from ‘felter’ – makers of felt also carried on their business in the lane.

Bishopsgate was one of the seven main London gates and the street is one of the longest in the City of London. The gate itself was named for Bishop Erkenwald, who became Bishop of London in 675.

Dowgate Hill (or Downgate) may have derived from the fact that the River Walbrook, once a main water supply for the City of London, flowed down the hill and through a gate into the Thames. The lovely Mr Habben, however, eschews this theory and states that, “it is an inscrutable corruption of, or deviation from, the original name, which it would now be difficult and inconclusive to conjecture, though Dock-Gate is tempting.” Sir Francis Drake lived in Dowgate Hill. 

Budge Row, which no longer exists, was the centre of dealers of ‘budges’, or fine lambskin fur, used for the edging of scholastic gowns. Apparently the word ‘budget’ comes from a bag made from lambskin, which may have been used to hold revenue, and transferred its meaning to the contents.

Snow Hill we covered in a recent seasonal post, which you can read here but, as the legend says, it was once called Snore Hylle and could have come from a Scandinavian trader called Snorro, or from the Celtic word ‘suadh’, a brook.

Holborn Hill comes from ‘Hol-Burne, the part of the old River Fleet that flowed under what is now Holborn Viaduct – the ‘burne’, or river, in the hollow. Fleet Ditch, similarly, took its name from the River Fleet; fleet comes from an Anglo-Saxon word meaning a tidal inlet.

Harp Alley takes its name from a 17th-century inn that once stood here. It is now a court off Farringdon Street. 

Finally, Gray’s Inn, which takes its name from the town house of Lord Gray of Wilton, which was leased to lawyers in the 16th century. Inn once meant a large house and was used for the grand residences of the nobility.

Bishops, wormwood, and Dirty Dick

bishopsgate cropThe next in our series of London’s gates is Bishopsgate, which gives its name to a street that is one of the longest in the City of London. The gate itself, according to John Stow, was named for Bishop Erkenwald, who became Bishop of London in 675.

The site of the former gate is marked by a stone bishop’s mitre, where Bishopsgate meets Wormwood Street and Camomile Street, two streets that  are exactly what they sound.

In the 12th and 13th centuries, houses were built no closer than about five metres from the old London Wall and the land along the line of the wall was allowed to grow wild. Two of the wild flowers that grew here were camomile and wormwood.

Wormwood, used to flavour vermouth and absinthe, was said to have gained its name because it grew up in the path followed by the serpent when he was evicted from Paradise.

Dirty DicksOne of the streets that intersects Bishopsgate is Leadenhall Street, the location of a warehouse owned by of Richard (or Nathaniel) Bentley. Bentley, once known as the ‘beau of Leadenhall Street’ as he was well-dressed and a frequent visitor at court, later became known as Dirty Dick. A famous London pub – Dirty Dick’s, which stands just off Leadenhall Street in Catherine Wheel Alley – takes its name from the warehouse.

Bentley’s change in hygiene is said to have come about when the girl to whom he was betrothed died the day before their marriage; he may have been the inspiration for Charles Dickens when he penned the character of Miss Haversham in Great Expectations.

Keats, wormwood, gates and health springs

This day in London history: on 18 December, 1795, the poet John Keats (who was born on 31 October) was baptized in the church of St Botolph-without-Bishopsgate. The church is mentioned as early as 1212, when it was called Sancti Botolfi Extra Bishopesgate, though worship on the site dates back to Roman times. Edward Alleyn was also baptized here, as was an infant son of Ben Jonson.

Bishopsgate takes its name from the ‘Bishop’s Gate’, an entrance to the city for the Bishops of London, and probably named for St Erkenwald, Bishop of London in the 7th century.There were seven original ‘gates’ as part of London Wall: Aldgate, Aldersgate, Bishopsgate, Cripplegate, Ludgate, Moorgate, and Newgate.

The churchyard adjoining the buildings runs along Wormwood Street, also part of the route of the original London Wall. At one time the land here was kept free of houses, and the land along the line of the old London Wall was allowed to grow wild. One of the wild flowers that grew here was wormwood; this herb, used to flavour vermouth and absinthe, was said to have gained its name because it grew up in the path followed by the serpent when he was evicted from Paradise.

Although Keats went to medical school in London, his heart was that of a poet, and he finally abandoned the studies that would enable him to become a member of the Royal College of Surgeons. He moved to Hampstead (where the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge also lived) and lodged initially in Well Walk.

Well Walk takes its name from the medicinal waters of Hampstead, which was once the health centre of London: in the 18th century it was still very much a rural area and waters from the Chalybeate Springs, for the wealthy Londoners, were every bit as good as those in Bath. The springs are still there, no longer potable, however, and covered over. Legend has it that the springs arose on the spot where a monk, who was carrying a bottle of the Virgin Mary’s tears, tripped and spilled his precious cargo.

Wren, Newton, and the Chelsea Pensioners

This day in London history: on 28 November 1660 the Royal Society was founded. A group of twelve men met at Gresham College in Bishopsgate after a lecture by Christopher Wren, then the Gresham Professor of Astronomy, and decided to found “a Colledge for the Promoting of Physico-Mathematicall Experimentall Learning”.

The following year, the name The Royal Society first appeared in print when Fellows of the Society put forward a petition to King Charles II for a royal grant of incorporation; this, the First Charter, was granted. This Charter did not provide for all the privileges the Fellows desired, and a Second Charter was granted in 1663. In this Charter, the King declared himself to be the Founder and Patron of the Society.

However, before sufficient funds for building could be raised, Charles changed his mind and repurchased the land to provide an infirmary for soldiers. This was the Royal Hospital, built by Wren, and now home to the Chelsea Pensioners.

The Society's first home
The Society’s first home

The Society was given accommodation in Gresham College but meetings were sporadic in the early days, interrupted by events such as the Plague and the Great Fire. In 1669 Charles II granted Chelsea College and its surrounding lands to the Society so that it could have a permanent home.

For many years, there was a rumour that Nell Gwynn had beseeched Charles to build the hospital after she heard had been moved by the story of an injured soldier. Once the hospital had been built, old soldiers there would toast Nell as their benefactress. Romantic as it sounds, it seems unlikely that there is any truth to Nell’s involvement in the hospital.

It was not until 1710 that the Society had a home in Crane Court. Sir Isaac Newton was by now the President of the Society. His Principia Mathematica, in which he presents his ‘laws of gravity’, was published by the Royal Society. Another 18th-century Fellow was Benjamin Franklin; in 1753 the Society awarded him its Copley Medal for his work with electricity; in 1756 he was elected as a Fellow of the Society.

www.royalsociety.org