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.

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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