From Fashion to Threadneedle: London street names and the Great British Sewing Bee 

It seemed only logical that, having written a post on baking-related themes for the final of the Great British Bakeoff last October, the recent final of the Great British Sewing Bee should also prompt me to find street names related to sewing and fashion. (First, I should apologise for the hiatus in posting. I apologise.)

The most obvious is Fashion Street in Spitalfields and I have to go off on a slight tangent here: I was excited, in double-checking something for this post on Wikipedia, to discover that one of my posts is cited as a reference for Flower and Dean Street. But I digress.

Fashion Street is nothing to do with clothes or sewing: it was so named when it was built in the 1650s; the land upon which it stands belonged to the Fasson brothers – Thomas and Lewis, skinner and goldsmith respectively. By 1708 Fasson Street had been corrupted to Fashion Street. They also owned the land upon which stood Flower and Dean Street, where two of Jack the Ripper’s victims lived, and that street was named for bricklayers John Flower and Gowen Dean. 

For a long time Fashion Street – and, indeed, the whole area – was a dirty and dangerous place to live. Jack London lived in Flower and Dean Street in 1902-3 and wrote a book, The People of the Abyss, about the state of life in the Whitechapel and Spitalfields areas of London.

Another obvious sewing street name is Threadneedle Street, home of the Bank of England. The Bank of England. The derivation of the name is not as straightforward as might first appear. Thread and needle certainly make contextual sense, but the street was originally Three Needle Street and was known as such for a long time.

The name is likely to derive from the arms of the The Worshipful Company of Needlemakers, whose coat of arms includes three needles, but the sewing connections don’t end there. The Merchant Taylors, who began life as the Company of Tailors and Linen-Armourers, have had their hall here since 1347, and once owned almshouses in Threadneedle Street for its aged members.

Petticoat Lane belongs to this category, even though it is no longer called that; the lane was covered in a recent post about names that aren’t what they seem, and you can read that here. This name could derive from the fact that secondhand clothes dealers established this as the centre of London’s used clothes district, or from the English form of the French petit court, a “little short lane”.

There is Cloak Lane, which is one of those nice-sounding but icky names, like Maiden Lane, which takes its name from ‘midden’ or dung heap. Cloak in this instance is likely to derive from the Latin cloaca, or sewer. The lane was once called Horseshoe Bridge and led over the Walbrook; there was probably a sewer draining into the brook at that point.

If you prefer a more romantic story, then let’s look to the recently-posted tale of Bleeding Heart Yard, which you can read here. As Saint Nick was carrying off the beautiful gypsy maid who had sold her soul to him, her heart fell in Bleeding Heart Yard, her cloak in Cloak Lane, and one of her shoes in Shoe Lane.

Some might argue that shoes fit in the fashion category, but I am sticking with the clothing and sewing side of fashion and we can look at shoes another time.

Cloth Fair takes name from Bartholomew Fair; this three-day event was held in the Smithfield area from the 12th century to the 19th century. The fair was, early on, essentially a trade fair for the woollen and drapery industries, with Italian and Flemish cloth merchants, and money charged on tolls for goods was a source of income for the priory of St Bartholomew. The nearby Cloth Court and Cloth Street also took their name from the fair.

Bartholomew Fair gradually attracted more and more people, and soon the speciality of cloth was virtually overlooked. Ben Jonson, who immortalised it in the comic play Bartholomew Fair, first staged on 31 October 1614.

Clothier Street in Houndsditch, which was known previously as Crab Court and Carter Street, has a connection to the clothing industry that goes back to Elizabethan times when it was famous as a gathering area for “sellers of old apparel”. An official Clothes Exchange was established there in 1875 and the current name was assigned in 1906.

There isn’t a City of London worshipful company of clothiers, but there is Worshipful Company of Clothiers in Worcester.

In 2008 Prince Charles visited the city of Worcester and paid £453.15 to the Company, thus settling a Royal debt dating back to 1651. Prior to the Battle of Worcester that year, Charles II commissioned the Company to make uniforms for his troops, promising to pay after winning the battle. However, Cromwell won and Charles II fled to Europe, leaving a debt of £453.3s which he did not settle after he acceded to the throne. That is what you call serious welshing on a deal. (And before any Welsh readers complain about me feeding into negative stereotypes, don’t forget I supported Wales in the Six Nations.)

Haberdasher Street in Shoreditch takes its name from a bequest by Robert Aske, silk merchant and member of the Haberdashers’ Company. He left land and money to the Company; it was used to establish a school in 1690. The Haberdashers’ Company maintains a strong tradition of supporting schools.

Silk merchant takes us onto Silk Street, which was built either in 1799 or 1879 and takes its name from silk weaving in 17th-century London, which was carried on largely by French refugees who settled in the Spitalfields area. By the 19th century they had been joined by their English counterparts from the north, who set up silk factories. Many of them lived in this street, which was finally named in recognition of that fact. (Since there’s always one in every crowd, the theory has also been put forward that the name may have come from a builder.)

Pickled eggs, Charles II, and Falstaff

Charles II coronation robes
Charles II in his coronation robes

This day in London history: on 6 February 1685 King Charles II died of apoplexy, having suffered a fit four days earlier. While his last words are popularly considered to be, “Let not poor Nellie starve,” it seems that they weren’t his very last words as, after that, he told his courtiers, “I am sorry, gentlemen, for being such a time a-dying.”

There are many things for which Charles II could and should be remembered, but one that may escape the notice of some people is his indirect contribution to one of London’s quaintly-named (and sadly no longer existing) streets, Pickled Egg Walk.

This walk – a “place of low amusements” – took its name from the Pickled Egg tavern. The proprietor, who was not a Londoner, had a particularly delectable recipe for pickled eggs. The story goes that Charles II (though some versions say it was his father, Charles I) once stopped there, sampled that delicacy for the first time, and enjoyed it. Royal pleasure was something that any canny landlord would capitalize on and this one was no exception, promptly naming the inn for his speciality.

There was once also a Pickle Herring Street – again, sadly, no longer there, having given way to modern developments in the Tooley Street area (from St Olave’s Street, with a connection to London Bridge falling down). The easy explanation for its name is that the street was on the site of one of the Thames River’s old wharves – where cargoes of pickled herrings were shipped. The area was once known as ‘London’s larder’, from its use as the primary storage area for butter, cheese and, later, canned meat.

A 19-century depiction of Falstaff

As always, there are other possible explanations: though herrings were pickled in England as far back as the 14th century, it was more of a Dutch speciality. There is a record, in 1584, of a ‘Peter Van Duraunte alias Pickell Heringe’ being buried in Bermondsey. Van Duraunte was actually a brewer, so the nickname is not obvious, unless he had an inn called the Pickled Herring; such an inn may have given rise to the street name.

The name may also have come from the fact that Sir John Falstofe – who gave his name to Shakespeare’s Falstaff – lived on this spot in 1447. Falstofe was once a fish merchant, so it could have been his pickled herrings that gave the street its name.

Pall Mall, gas lights and celestial beds

Peep Gas Lights Pall Mall
A caricature of reactions to the lights by Thomas Rowlandson

This day in London history: on 28 January 1807, London’s Pall Mall became the first street to have public lighting by gas.

Pall Mall takes its name from a French game, paille-maille (also known as palla a maglio), mentioned as early as the reign of James I, who recommended the game for his eldest son, Prince Henry. The game was similar to croquet, involving a “wooden hammer set to the end of a long staff to strike a boule with”. Pall Mall was allegedly constructed by Charles II especially for the playing of this game.

Gainsborough plaqueThe artist Thomas Gainsborough lived here, in Schomberg House, from 1774 until his death and there is a blue plaque to commemorate the fact. Another resident of the house was WIlliam Augustus, Duke of Cumberland and military commander. He was the third son of George II, and in 1739 an Act of Parliament was passed to allow him an annual income of £15,000 from the civil list.

The Duke also became known later as the ‘Butcher of Colloden’ after the half hour battle in which around two thousand Scottish rebels were slain. His brother, the future King George III, was instrumental in spreading unpleasant rumours about him, but he ended up being generally disliked with little help from anyone else.

Even more of a claim to fame, or infamy, for the house, built in 1698, was its use as a headquarters for the quirkiest of quacks. James Graham studied medicine at the University of Edinburgh, though it is not certain that he even actually qualified. He was not ignorant of basic health and hygiene: he supported vegetarian diets, fresh air, temperance in the consumption of alcohol, and sleeping on mattresses. But he went on to more elaborate medical theories and practices.

Schomberg House 1850
Schomberg House in 1850

Graham first set up his operations at Adelphi Terrace, in an elaborately decorated house with equipment said to have cost around £10,000. The cost of this ‘Temple of Health and Hymen’ proved too much and in 1781 Graham moved his operation to Schomberg House. It was, basically, an 18th-century sex therapy clinic and fertility centre, though mud baths and card games were also available. One of Graham’s assistants was a young girl known as Vestina, Goddess of Health. She was one Emy Lyon, later better known as Emma Hart and then even more famously as Lady Hamilton, mistress of Admiral Nelson and the mother of his child.

The centrepiece of this temple of Hymen was the Grand Celestial Bed, guaranteed (at £50 per night) to induce conception for even the most infertile of couples. The bed, which had mattresses filled with springy stallion hair and coloured sheets, was supported by forty glass pillars and surmounted by a mirror-lined dome. The name comes from the not very flattering line in Hamlet where the ghost of Hamlet’s father tells him:

So lust, though to a radiant angel link’d,
Will sate itself in a celestial bed,
And prey on garbage.

Music, which came from the mouths of gild nymphs on each of the glass pillars, completed the course necessary for the conception of perfect babies with a couple “powerfully agitated in the delights of love”. Also important for the treatment was the prior lecture on generation, delivered by the ‘doctor’ himself.

Despite his innovative ideas, Graham was not always taken seriously. He became something of a religious fanatic and eventually returned to Edinburgh, called himself the Servant of the Lord OWL (Oh Wonderful Love). He was, for a time, confined to his house as a lunatic and finally died at home on his 49th birthday.

Nell Gwynne plaquePall Mall also bears a plaque on the site of the house occupied by Eleanor (Nell) Gwynne in the last 16 years of her life. She, too, had an impressive bed that may have served as an inspiration for Graham: it was solid silver and situated in a room lined with mirrors. Nell, of course, was less famous for her bed than for who was in it – most notably Charles II.

Her start in life was relatively inauspicious: Nell was born in one of Covent Garden’s sleazier streets, in a brothel run by her mother. She was orphaned after her father died in prison and her mother drowned in a drunken stupor. Despite remaining illiterate all her life, she was known as “pretty, witty Nell”.

One of best, non-physical, attributes – as far as Charles was concerned – was that she did not try to dabble in politics, unlike some of his other mistresses. (Dabbling in politics was, and possibly is, a not uncommon failing of royal mistresses, as with Lola Montez.) Nell was, however, insistent that her child by Charles who, though the son of a king, was illegitimate and so had no rights under law, be given a title.

To ensure this, she dangled the child from a window and threatened to drop him until Charles finally gave in and said, “Nay, Nellie, pray spare the Earl of Burford.” Nell was probably Charles’s favourite of all his many mistresses and, as tradition has it, his last words were, “Let not poor Nellie starve.”

Actresses, oranges, and paille-maille

This day in London’s history: on 8 December 1660, Thomas Killigrew opened his new theatre and made history by having the first actress to play on the British stage. The role was Desdemona in Shakespear’s Othello but there is some debate as to who the actress was; many sources point to either Margaret Hughes or Anne Marshall.

Another, less likely, candidate is Katherine Corey, who was involved in a major scandal. Nell Gwynne, perhaps the most famous of Charles II’s mistresses, was embroiled in a feud with a noblewoman by the name of Elizabeth Harvey. Nell bribed the actress to mimic Harvey on stage, an act that moved Lady Harvey to hire thugs to hiss Corey on stage and throw oranges at her.

The oranges, presumably, may have been a reference to Nell’s earlier life; in her teens she sold oranges at the King’s Theatre, when the actor Charles Hart became her lover. (Before she became a royal mistress, another of her lovers was Charles Sackville, Lord Buckhurst. Nell referred to her lovers as Charles the First and Charles the Second, so that when the king came along, he became to her Charles the Third.)

In the last years of her life, Nell lived in Pall Mall, which takes its name from a French game, paille-maille (also known as palla a maglio), mentioned as early as the reign of James I, who recommended the game for his eldest son, Prince Henry. The game was similar to croquet, involving a “wooden hammer set to the end of a long staff to strike a boule with”. Pall Mall was allegedly constructed by Charles II especially for the playing of this game.

The Great Smog of London and the Fumifugium

This day in London history: on 5 December 1952 the Great Smog of London began. As many as 12,000 people are estimated to have died as a result of the severe air pollution, with up to 100,000 who fell ill because of the smog’s effects on their respiratory systems.

Nelson in fog
Nelson’s column in Trafalgar Square during the Great Smog. Photograph N T Stobbs

In the days that the smog lasted, visibility was virtually nil; public transport ceased, and public events, such as cinema screenings and theatre performances were cancelled as the fog seeped indoors. This event was a direct contributor to the first of the Clean Air Acts, which was passed in 1956, ensuring that such an event never occurred again.

At the time, there was little or no panic, Londoners being accustomed to the ‘pea souper’ fogs so beloved of movie directors. This was not the first time that severe cold and the burning of coal made the air of the city poisonous. In fact, there are a Seacoal Lane and an Old Seacoal Lane in the Fleet Street area, named because of the barges on the River Fleet that docked arrived here with their loads of seacoal.

Seacoal croppedThis mineral coal was so named to distinguish it from charcoal and it proved to be such a contributor to air pollution that in the 14th century,  following a petition from the City’s population, Edward I passed a law prohibiting the burning of it .

This had little effect; subsequent monarchs and increasingly severe punishment – at one time death – did not stop people from burning seacoal. In  1661 John Evelyn, diarist and member of the Royal society, wrote a pamphlet, one of the earliest known publications on air pollution. One of his recommendations was to remove works using seacoal to five miles outside the city.

This pamphlet rejoiced in the title of Fumifugium, or, The inconveniencie of the aer and smoak of London dissipated together with some remedies humbly proposed by J.E. esq. to His Sacred Majestie, and to the Parliament now assembled. On the 13th of September that year, Evelyn notes in his diary that he presented his Fumifugium ”dedicated to his Majesty, who was pleased that I should publish it by his special commands, being much gratified with it”.

Later that year Evelyn writes of another encounter with Charles II, this time on one of the royal boats, when the king, he says, “was pleased to discourse to me about my book inveighing against the nuisance of the smoke of London, and proposing expedients how, by removing those particulars I mentioned, it might be reformed; commanding me to prepare a Bill against the next session of Parliament being, as he said, resolved to have something done in it”.

In the winter of 1683-1684, known as The Great Freeze, when the Thames was frozen for two months, the cold conditions and the continued pollution gave rise to this comment in Evelyn’s diary: “London, by reason of the excessive coldness of the air hindering the ascent of the smoke was so filled with the fuliginous steam of the sea-coal, that hardly could one see across the street, and this filling the lungs with its gross particles, exceedingly obstructed the breast so as one could scarcely breathe.”

Cathedrals, cardinals, and brothels

This day in London history: on 2 December 1697 the first service was held in the incomplete St Paul’s Cathedral (the now-famous dome had not yet been built), designed by Sir Christopher Wren. Building had begun in 1675 and was finally finished in 1710.

Wren & St Paul'sThe site marks the spot where there has been a place of worship dating back at least to Roman times when there was a temple there. The current cathedral is the latest in a long line of buildings on the site, all either destroyed or seriously damaged by fire, by lightning, and by people. Old St Paul’s, which took around 150 years to complete, was destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666 and Charles II commissioned Wren to design its replacement.

Wren, a Professor of Astronomy at Gresham College (original home of the Royal Society) and later Savilian Professor of Astronomy at Oxford, had been appointed Surveyor of Works to Charles II in 1669. In addition to the new St Paul’s he was responsible for the rebuilding of over 50 churches in London after the fire and, during the building works, lived at least some of the time in Cardinal Cap Alley just south of the Thames from the cathedral.

Cardinal Cap Alley cropThe alley takes its name from one of the licensed ‘stews’ – brothels – of Bankside that flourished for centuries until the time of Henry VIII and had their names painted on the walls rather than on a hanging sign. The stews, which were licensed under strict regulations, were leased from the Bishops of Winchester.

A rebellion, a beheading and an oak tree

This day in London history: on 26 November 1688 King James II of England and James VII of Scotland, younger brother and heir of Charles II, retreated back to London. He had set out to meet and defeat William of Orange who, by invitation from English politicians, was invading England.

James had recently been provided with an heir in the form of his son James Francis Edward, who has gone down in history as ‘The Old Pretender’, and the political forces were strongly opposed to a Catholic monarch. William later became joint monarch with his wife and cousin Mary, thus providing England with a Protestant monarch.

One of James’s main opponents was his own nephew, James Scott, Duke of Monmouth and illegitimate son of Charles II. Monmouth had headed the Monmouth rebellion, losing his own head in the process.

There is an Allgood Street in London, formerly named Henrietta Street, and with somewhat scandalous associations. Henrietta Wentworth (1660-1686) was the 6th Baroness Wentworth and, though due to marry Richard Tufton, 5th Earl of Thanet, took up with the already-married Duke of Monmouth, and used her jewels and wealth to help fund Monmouth’s unsuccessful attempts to capture the throne.

Monmouth was beheaded in July 1685 and Henrietta died the following year, supposedly from a broken heart. Her mother had an elaborate monument built to Henrietta’s memory in the church at Toddington, the Wentworth’s estate in Bedfordshire. However, a more personal and touching memorial existed in the form of her name, carved by Monmouth, on an oak tree in the Toddington estate. The tree became known locally as the Monmouth Oak.