Scatalogical London: from Farting Lane to Pissing Alley

EAS_3912Londoners, like New Yorkers, are not afraid to tell it like it is, and many of the city’s street names reflect (or reflected) that forthright quality. Street hygiene centuries ago was not what it could have been, and residents were by no means shy about calling streets by their most noticeable, however unflattering, attributes – such as Dirty Lane, Filth Alley, Pissing Alley, and Stinking Lane.

Many of these names have been changed to protect the innocent minds; others have been corrupted over the years and are no longer as obvious as they once were.

For instance, Passing Alley near Smithfield Market was changed from Pissing Alley, a name that served to sum up the popular use of the lane. At one end of the the alley was a tavern where prisoners on their way from Clerkenwell to Newgate were allowed to pause for refreshment. Presumably they then also stopped in Pissing Alley for relief.

EAS_3935Maiden Lane in Covent Garden, according to Disraeli (Isaac, not Benjamin), took its name from a statue of the Virgin Mary which once stood on the corner of the lane. However, it is more likely that the name actually derives from the ‘middens’ – dung heaps – that once proliferated in the area. Incidentally, there is a Maiden Lane in Manhattan’s financial district (apparently unrelated to dung heaps) that inspired a 1936 crime film, 15 Maiden Lane.

The most charming theory behind the name of Cloak Lane in the City of London is that it is where Lady Elizabeth Hatton dropped her cloak as she was being carried off by the devil and about to leave her heart in Bleeding Heart Yard. Sadly, the name, which first appears in the late 17th century (thus, alas, predating Lady Elizabeth), is more likely to have derived from the Latin ‘cloaca’, or sewer.

Also in the City of London, Addle Hill has at least two different theories as to the derivation of its name: one is that was once King Adele Street, from the grandson of King Alfred. But, for the purposes of this blog, the other theory is that that the name derives from the Old English word adela (translated variously as stinking urine or liquid manure).

The sewer gas lamp replica in Carting Lane

Carting Lane just off the Strand doubly deserves its place in Scatological London. First of all, it was once called Dirty Lane; the name was was changed during the mid 19th century in deference to the residents’ sensibilities.

However, Carting Lane became Farting Lane to many people because of the sewer gas lamp that once stood in the lane – a replica of which is still there.

Sir Francis Bacon, the Savoy Hotel, and Farting Lane

Savoy Palace
The original Savoy Palace

This day in London history: on 22 January 1561, Sir Francis Bacon was born at the Strand (or Strand, if you prefer) in London. This blog has dealt with both Sir Francis Bacon and the Strand in other posts, and the Strand is probably now more famous as the location of the Savoy Hotel than as the birthplace of Bacon, so here are a few historical snippets about the Savoy. Including its contribution to the nickname – Farting Lane – of a nearby passageway.

The Savoy stands on the site of a palace built in 1245 by Simon de Montfort, Earl of Leicester but later granted by Henry III to Peter of Savoy. A nice bit of nepotism as Savoy was the uncle of Eleanor of Provence, Henry’s queen; it was not a complete gimme, however, as Savoy had to give “yearly at the Exchequer three barbed arrows for all services”.

The palace was also once the London residence of John of Gaunt but, according to the wonderful Walter Thornbury in Old and New London (Volume 3), “the palace of the Savoy was fired, pillaged, and almost demolished with gunpowder by a lawless mob of rebels, led by Wat Tyler, in 1381”. It was “for the malice which they bore to John of Gaunt and his principles”, which principles being, as Tyler saw it, the introduction of the poll tax. It was not the only building to suffer because of the poll tax; the Priory of Clerkenwell was another.

Later on, and before the Savoy Hotel was built, it was restored by Henry VII, dedicated to St John, and opened in 1512 for use as a hospital for the poor. The hospital closed in 1702 and the area, once full of grand residences, became something of a sleazy neighbourhood and was the site of the Dog and Duck tavern where those behind the Gunpowder Plot would meet. By the 19th century, the building was in ruins.

EAS_3847Enter impresario Richard D’Oyly Carte; the money he made from the Gilbert and Sullivan operas enabled him to build the country’s first luxury hotel, with features like electric lights throughout, and bathrooms in some of the more lavish rooms. The Savoy opened in 1889 and is still a name synonymous with luxury.

That is not to say, however, that it didn’t play its part in the sewer gas lamp innovation of Mr Joseph Edmund Webb. The grand hotel was able to provide fuel for these lamps, and a replica of one still stands next to the hotel in Carting Lane. Not unnaturally, given the nature of these lamps, the lane was nicknamed Farting Lane by local residents.

The sewer gas lamp replica in Carting Lane

The Coal Hole tavern, the sign of which can be seen next to the sewer gas lamp replica was, according to the pub’s website, once the coal cellar for the Savoy Hotel. The website goes on to say: “In the Victorian era, the pub was a ‘song and supper’ club where regulars were encouraged to sing comical songs and sentimental ballads. Gilbert and Sullivan regularly performed here in Edwardian times, the Shakespearean actor Edmund Kean started the Wolves’ Club here for oppressed husbands forbidden to sing in the bath!”