London’s feline streets: Cat and Mutton Bridge to Pope’s Head Alley

Catherine Wheel AlleyIt seemed only fair, after a dog-related post, to include our feline friends; it has been a bit of a challenge, however, and I have had to stretch tenuous to new lengths.

Suitably feline is Cat and Mutton bridge in Hackney, where there is still a Cat and Mutton pub. One version of the name is that it was originally Shoulder of Mutton and Cat from the ‘cats’ or coal barges that would have gone under the bridge on the nearby Regents Canal. Another version (on the pub’s own website) is that it was originally the Cattle and Shoulder of Mutton; also from the “many drovers and agricultural workers arriving in London to sell there various beasts in the markets in what now is known as the city”.

The old inn sign, at one time, had two verses on it:

Pray, Puss, do not tare,
Because the mutton is so rare

and

Pray, Puss do not claw,
Because the mutton is so raw

In the recent saintly street signs post, we looked at Catherine Wheel Alley, which takes its name from a tavern. During the time of the Puritans, when overtly religious symbols were frowned on, most landlords of such taverns changed the name to the Cat and Wheel.

Kitcat Terrace in Bow commemorates the Reverend Henry James Kitkat, rector of St Mary’s Bow from 1904 to 1921. The name derives from Kitcott, a place name in Devon. There was once a Kit-Kat Club, founded in 1700 by a bookseller called Jacob Tonson, and taking its name from the proprietor (Christopher (Kit) Kat, whose name is also given as Cat, Katt, and even Catling ) of a pastry-house in Shire Lane off Fleet Street, where the members used to dine.

Alexander Pope whimsically referred to the club and its name in verse:

Whence deathless Kit-Cat took its name
Few critics can unriddle
Some say from Pastry Cook it came,
And some from Cat and Fiddle

Sadly, there is no Cat and Fiddle street.

EAS_4066Bow brings us nicely to the first tenuous cat connection: Elbow Lane in the City of London, now called, less interestingly, College Street. In the 16th century it a street that ran west and then suddenly turned south, according to London historian John Stow, and was “therefore of that bending called Elbow Lane”.

The reason it was named College Street was to commemorate a college founded by Dick Whittington or, properly, Sir Richard Whittington, Lord Mayor of the City of London.One legend about him is that attempted to flee the city in order to escape a menial job where he was beaten and that he was persuaded to return by the sound of the Bow Bells promising him that he would be Mayor of London. And everyone knows the other legend: that he went to London with his faithful cat to seek his fortune.

EAS_4093During the reign of King Edward IV, there was a kind of ‘engrave-off’ between English goldsmiths and their foreign rivals, which took place at the Pope’s Head tavern (now Pope’s Head Alley). According to Old and New London, “The challenge was to engrave four puncheons of steel (the breadth of a penny sterling) with cat’s heads and naked figures in high relief and low relief; Oliver Davy, the Englishman, won, and White Johnson, the Alicant goldsmith, lost his wager of a crown and a dinner to the Company.”

And the last of the very tenuous cat links: the writer Eleanor Farjeon, best remembered for writing children’s books, was born in Buckingham Street. Perhaps her most famous work was the hymn ‘Morning has Broken’, popularized in the 1970s by the singer known then as Cat Stevens.

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Bow bells, elbows, and Dick Whittington

St Mary-Le-Bow
The church of St Mary-le-Bow

On 13 October 1397 Sir Richard Whittington was first elected Mayor of London. (That is, Lord Mayor of the City of London: a post that still exists as opposed to the Mayor of London, which is a post encompassing Greater London.)

There is much in the way of legend surrounding Dick Whittington; the main points of the folklore are that he was a poor boy from the north; that he went to London with his faithful cat to seek his fortune; that he attempted to flee the city in order to escape a menial job where he was beaten; and that he was persuaded to return by the sound of the Bow Bells promising him that he would be Mayor of London.

That’s all very well, and I hate to be a spoilsport, but it appears that the real-life Whittington was born in Gloucestershire in the Forest of Dean into a wealthy family and sent to London to learn the trade of mercer (cloth merchant). And there is no evidence that he owned a cat.

Even more disappointing, there is no real consensus on where he is supposed to reached before he was lured back by the sound of the bells. The most popular version is Highgate, and there is a Whittington Stone at the foot of Highgate Hill to commemorate the event. Other versions say Bunhill or Holloway.

The bells are the bells of St Mary-le-Bow in Bow Lane; tradition dictates that someone is only a Cockney if they are born within the sound of those bells. That then begs the question as to how Dick Whittington managed to hear the bells all the way from Highgate. (Incidentally, unlike Bow Street, the name of 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.)

All of which brings us, in a suitably roundabout way, to Elbow Lane in the City of London, now called, less interestingly, College Street. In the 16th century it a street that ran west and then suddenly turned south, according to London historian John Stow, and was “therefore of that bending called Elbow Lane”.

The lane later became Great and Little Elbow Lanes and then, in 1839, was renamed College Street to commemorate the college established by Whittington. That was the College of St Spirit and St Mary; Sir Richard felt that the founding of the college would ensure that his soul would be well received by the right parties after his death. (The college was yet another institution dissolved by Henry VIII.)

Opera, price riots, and Bow Street Runners

Royal Opera House exterior
The modern-day Royal Opera House. Photo credit: ROH2012

This day in London’s history: on 7 December 1732 Covent Garden theatre opened on Bow Street on what was the site of an ancient convent garden, and remained a fruit and vegetable market until 1974.

John Rich, actor/manager at Lincoln’s Inn Fields, was responsible for the building of the first Opera House: in 1728 he commissioned The Beggar’s Opera from John Gay. This was successful enough to provide the funds to build the first Theatre Royal at Covent Garden, designed by Edward Shepherd and completed in 1732.

In 1763 the interior was substantially damaged when rioting broke out amongst would-be theatregoers who were refused half price admission in the third act. They stormed the theatre, tearing out benches and breaking chandeliers.

Original Opera House
The Opera House before the 1808 fire

More serious damage occurred in 1808 when fire destroyed the theatre, which was rebuilt virtually immediately, reopening less than a year later.Seat prices were raised to help cover the rebuilding costs, but once again the theatregoers resisted this move, and, says the Opera House’s official site, “disrupted performances by beating sticks, hissing, booing and dancing”.

These ‘Old Price’ riots lasted nearly three months before the audience won their battle.

In 1856 fire struck once more, and the theatre was again completely destroyed. Rebuilding took a little longer this time, largely due to financial considerations, but the third – and current – theatre opened on 15 May 1858.

Bow Street, the home of the Royal Opera House, owes its name to the shape of the street, which runs “in the shape of a bent bow”. As well as the Opera House, Bow Street is perhaps most famous for the Bow Street Runners.

Henry Fielding lived in Bow Street when he was writing Tom Jones and was appointed magistrate for Westminster. It was in 1749 that he established the Bow Street Runners, the precursor to the modern London police force, and many of his ideas were developed by John. There were originally only a handful of these Runners, but they caused the crime rate to drop almost immediately.

EAS_4072During Victoria’s reign, the police station in Bow Street was unusual in that it was provided with a white lamp, rather than the traditional blue one. It is said that Victoria did not like seeing the blue lamp when she visited the theatre because it reminded her of her beloved Albert, who had died in the Blue Room of Windsor Castle.

There is also a Bow Lane, EC4: it is the bells of St Mary-le-Bow, located here, that determined whether or not someone is a Cockney: traditionally someone is only a Cockney if they are born within the sound of those bells. (This, however, begs the question as to how Dick Whittington managed, as tradition has it, to hear the bells all the way from Highgate. Certainly people born between in Highgate are not considered Cockneys.) 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.

EAS_4062
The church of Mary-le-Bow