London’s culinary streets: from bacon to buns

Well, readers, I appear to have painted myself into a corner with trying to be too specific with categories of culinary street names (see yesterday’s post) and now I’ve messed up the alphabetical order of them. Since even I need some kind of system I am throwing categories to the wind and backtracking to the letter ‘b’. Starting with Bacon’s Lane in Highgate, and Bacon Grove in Bermondsey.

Bacon’s Lane is not really about bacon: it is named after Sir Francis Bacon; it marks the spot of the house where he died, a victim of his own thirst for knowledge: he contracted pneumonia after investigating the principles of refrigeration, a pursuit that involved him stuffing a fowl with snow to see if it would preserve the meat.

Incidentally, Bacon’s other connections to London streets include the Strand (or just Strand, if you prefer), where he was born, and Bleeding Heart Yard. He was an unsuccessful suitor of Lady Elizabeth Hatton, who is the source of one of the theories behind the name of Bleeding Heart Yard.

Bacon Grove is also not about bacon; however, it does not take its name from Francis Bacon. It is from Josiah Bacon, a 17th-century leather merchant whose will provided for the foundation of Bacon’s School (later a City Technology College, and now an Academy called Bacon’s College), along with an endowment of £150 per year.

In the interest of full disclosure I should say that there is also a Bacon Street in East London, but I still don’t know the derivation of that particular name.

Bunhill Row is definitely not really a culinary street name as it it nothing to do with buns. It is, more disgustingly, from the nearby fields of the same name, originally Bone Hill Fields.

The fields were a burial ground dating from 1549 when a thousand carts full of bones from the over-crowded charnel houses at St Paul’s dumped their loads there. The name was in use before then, so it seems likely that people had historically taken advantage of the marshy land there for dumping various items, including bones.

In the 17th century it was intended as a burial ground for victims of the 1665 plague; it was never used for that purpose, nor was it ever consecrated, leading it to become a popular burial ground with the non-conformists. Following the Burial Act of 1852, allowing such places to be closed when they became full, the last burial that took place there was in 1854 when a 15-year-old girl was laid to rest.

Among the bones of 120,000 people who were interred in Bunhill Fields were John Bunyan, William Blake, and Daniel Defoe. There is a memorial, erected in 1870, to mark Defoe’s resting place; the money was obtained from a collection taken up by local schoolchildren. There is also an adjoining Quaker churchyard that contains the body of George Fox.

John Milton had a house in Bunhill Row from 1662 until his death in 1674.

Happily, Bunhouse Place (not Funhouse, as my computer is convinced) in Chelsea does relate to food – Chelsea buns, what else? Mr and Mrs Hand established the Chelsea Bun House near here in the 18th century. Jonathan Swift was sold a stale bun one day and he wrote in a letter dated 1711, “Pray, are not the fine buns sold here in our town; was it not Rrrrrrrrrare Chelsea buns? I bought one to-day in my walk; it cost me a penny; it was stale, and I did not like it…”

Despite Swift’s disappointment, Bun House did a storming trade, and was patronized by royalty; there were said to be as many as 50,000 people waiting outside on Good Fridays to buy hot cross buns, traditionally eaten on that day. This caused some consternation among the neighbours and in 1793 Mrs Hand declared that she would not sell any hot cross buns on that day.

This was made clear (or maybe not) in a notice on the shop window, which read:

“Mrs. Hand respectfully informs her friends and the public, that in consequence of the great concourse of people which assembled before her house at a very early hour, on the morning of Good Friday last, by which her neighbours (with whom she has always lived in friendship and repute) have been much alarmed and annoyed; it having also been intimated, that to encourage or countenance a tumultuous assembly at this particular period might be attended with consequences more serious than have hitherto been apprehended; desirous, therefore, of testifying her regard and obedience to those laws by which she is happily protected, she is determined, though much to her loss, not to sell Cross Buns on that day to any person whatever, but Chelsea buns as usual.”

Despite the fact that business began to decline in 1804, there were still nearly a quarter of a million buns sold on Good Friday 1839, the year when the Bun House finally closed.

In 1592 it was made illegal to sell hot cross buns except at burials, on Good Friday, or at Christmas. Those who ignored the edict had to forfeit their buns to the poor.

Advertisements

Hand Court, shop signs and plague pits

Yesterday’s post involved Tokenhouse Yard, mentioned in Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year; another street mentioned in that account was Hand Alley, near to Houndsditch. The alley, like Bunhill Row and Golden Square, stood on the site of one of the many communal pits for victims of the Great Plague in 1665.

In Defoe’s book he says: “The upper end of Hand Alley, in Bishopsgate Street, which was then a green field, and was taken in particularly for Bishopsgate parish, though many of the carts out of the city brought their dead thither also, particularly out of the parish of St All-hallows on the Wall.”

There is still a Hand Court in London, near Chancery Lane. As with many streets, the name could have come from a sign. In the days when the majority of people could not read, it was important for shopkeepers to have unequivocal signs (unlike taverns, where memorable and unusual signs were popular).

The hand was often used in conjunction with other items: a hand with a coffee pot was the sign of a coffee house; and hand in a glove meant a glover; and a hand and shears was the sign for a tailor. There were also occasions where the use of a hand on a sign had a special significance.

According to the 19th century writer John Camden Hotten: “where the sign is painted with a woman’s hand in it, ‘tis a bawdy house”.

Signs with a hand and heart, or hand in hand, were common in the Fleet Street of the 18th century, as it was an area with many marriage brokers. The Hand in Hand sign was then adopted by many taverns and it is possible that the court took its name from one such tavern.

There are not many body parts in London street names, but there are a couple, so more of that in a later post.

Not what they seem: London’s gross street names

Pudding LaneMoving on from the scatological, today is the turn of some of the names that aren’t what they seem. And what they are can sometimes be a bit yukky.

Take, for instance, Pudding Lane, which was where the Great Fire of 1666 started. Given that the fire started in a baker’s house (the king’s baker), pudding sounds like something you’d find at a baker, right? Wrong. The lane, once part of the meat centre of London, earlier had the name of Red Rose Lane, but it was on the route where the ‘puddings’ – parcels of offal – were transported to be thrown into the river.

Seething Lane signAlong those lines is Seething Lane, which is nothing to do with anger. There are other theories as to the derivation of the name, but the one that suits today’s theme is that the area was once said to be a centre for making soap and glue; this involved the boiling of animal skins and the smelly, steaming cauldrons gave rise to the name of Seething. Samuel Pepys lived here and was awoken one night by his maid who told him of the great fire that was raging to the west.

Like Pudding Lane, the derivation of Bunhill Row’s name is not as appetizing as it might first appear. It comes from the nearby fields of the same name (Bunhill Fields, where Daniel Defoe was buried), originally Bone Hill Fields. The fields were a burial ground dating from 1549 when a thousand carts full of bones from the over-crowded charnel houses at St Paul’s dumped their loads there.However, the name was in use before then, so it seems likely that people had historically taken advantage of the marshy land there for dumping various items, presumably including bones.

Huggin HillLess disgusting, but still not what people might think (and probably an equal contender for the Animal London names), is Huggin Hill, a popular sign for cuddling couples looking for a photo opportunity. It is, however, nothing to do with cuddling or hugging. It was Hoggenlane in the 14th century, probably from the old English ‘hoggene’ – a lane where hogs were kept.

Along the same lines, and also a contender for Animal London, is Swain’s Lane in Highgate, which is, alas, nothing to do with gallant pastoral gentlemen. In the 15th century it was known as ‘Swayneslane’ but later forms of the name show bluntly its derivation: for a long time it was more commonly known as Swine Lane.

Golden Square, which works for London’s gemstones and precious metals street names category, yet to come in this blog, is also nothing to do with what the name suggests. The site upon which the square stands was known as Gelding’s Cross in the early 17th century when the land was used for farming. (Like Bunhill Fields, the square was also a plague burial pit).