From Clink Street to Giltspur street: prison-related London streets

View of Clink Street

Well, it’s been a while, and thank you to all my faithful readers who have continued to visit this blog despite the lack of new material for a few months.

The last post I put up on the website was about watery names, prompted by our near miss of flood water in October. We were not so lucky when Storm Dennis raged through in February and so we are seeing out lockdown, and probably the rest of the year, in a rented house. No more water-related posts just yet.

But, speaking of lockdown, I am not making light of anything that has been happening this year, but a while ago I saw some unfortunate comments from celebrities with Hollywood mansions talking about lockdown similar to being in prison, so I did turn my thoughts to prison-related streets, of which there are many.

Today, let’s look at three of them, starting with Clink Street in Southwark. I used to work just round the corner, in the days long before Borough Market, when what became a bustling, trendy, foodie hang out was somewhere you didn’t like to walk through even during the day.

The street takes its name from the Clink Prison, now a museum. The first prison on this site, dating back to 1144, was a cellar in the Palace of the Bishop of Winchester. The contradictorily named Liberty of the Clink was attached to the manor of the Bishops of Winchester who occupied much of the land on the south bank of the Thames.

A popular theory for the derivation of the name is that ‘clink’ was the sound made when the blacksmith’s hammer secured the irons around the wrists or ankles of the prisoners.

Another theory is that the Flemish word ‘klink’ means ‘latch’, and may have referred to the latch on the door of the prison.

The Clink prison was destroyed in the Gordon Riots of 1780 and never rebuilt. Much of the rest of the area was also destroyed in the blitz during World War II; when the damage was being cleared up, part of the west wall and the 14th-century rose window of the Bishop’s palace was discovered and preserved.

Today, in addition to the Clink Prison museum, Clink Street leads to the replica of the Golden Hind – Sir Francis Drake’s galleon. 

The Clink Museum

We now move north of the river to Coldbath Square, which takes its name from a spring discovered in 1697 by Walter Baynes and converted to a bath, which was said to be a great cure for nervous illnesses. A famous 18th-century strong man, Thomas Topham, had a pub in the Coldbath Fields area, called the Apple Tree, but the area was, however, far more notorious for its prison.

The Coldbath Fields Prison was built in 1794 with 280 cells for individual confinement; soon there were nearly a thousand prisoners. It was built on swampy ground and the over-crowding and unhealthy air were responsible for prisoners dying off at an alarming rate. There was a great deal of rioting and the troops were often called in. The prison was closed in 1877 and demolished in 1889.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge mentions the prison in his poem ‘The Devil’s Thoughts’:

As he went through the Cold-Bath Fields he saw
A solitary cell;
And the Devil was pleased, for it gave him a hint
For improving his prisons in hell.

The area once covered by the prison is now the site of the Mount Pleasant Post Office. 

Not so very far away is Giltspur Street, which takes its name from the spurs worn by the knights who would ride through the street to reach jousting tournaments at the nearby Smooth Field. (That field gave its name to Smithfield, and I used to work around the corner from the meat market, again, many years ago when it a very un-trendy area.)

Spurs were an essential part of the knight’s life in medieval times; the expression ‘to win one’s spurs’ – to prove oneself – comes from the fact that originally it meant to obtain knighthood. (The word ‘spur’ itself derives from the Anglo-Saxon spura, to kick.) Gilt spurs, therefore, would have been a real mark of oneupmanship.

Giltspur Street later became far less glamorous: it was the site of the Giltspur Street Compter, a debtors’ prison, built at the end of the 18th century.

The street also formed part of the route from Newgate Prison to Tyburn, leading into the steep ascent of Holborn Hill, sometimes called Heavy Hill. As prisoners on that journey rode backwards, the expressions ‘to ride up Heavy Hill’ or ‘to ride backwards up Holborn Hill’ indicated that someone was on their last journey.

The expression ‘going west’, unlike the ‘go west’ of American pioneering times, referred to that last journey towards Tyburn.

London’s money-related streets: Allfarthing Lane to Pound Lane

There have been passing mentions to money, coins and other currency in this blog, but I don’t seem to recall a specifically money-themed post. Now that I am over my shame about King Cole and Ursula (I recovered quickly), let’s look at the filthy lucre in London’s streets.

First of all, we have Allfarthing Lane in Wandsworth; nothing to do with money, this lane derives its name from the manor of Alferthyng, upon which site it is located. Healf-feorthung in Old English means ‘half a fourth’ and was an indication of a small piece of land.

EAS_4102Change Alley, mentioned recently in the nautical-themed post as the street where the Marine Society was formed, is an abbreviation of ‘Exchange Alley’ – from the Royal Exchange. Towards the end of the 17th century, the Exchange was so crowded that many of the brokers transacted their business in local coffee houses, Jonathan’s Coffee House (the setting for the South Street Bubble) in particular.

Coin Street in Lambeth takes its name from a royal mint established here around 1543 at the home of Henry VIII’s brother-in-law Charles Brandon. (Brandon was consoled for the loss of his home with a town house, which formerly belonged to the Bishop of Norwich, in the Strand.) In 1833 a number of coins were found in a nearby field. The nearby Mint Street also marks the royal mint, which was used until its demolition in 1557; smaller houses were then built in the area.

Until the early 18th century the Mint area was a criminal quarter, a recognized sanctuary for thieves and debtors, and a haunting ground for marriage brokers. In John Gay’s 1728 The Beggars’ Opera, there was a character referred to as Matt of the Mint.

Clink Street
View of Clink Street

Farthing Alley, on the edge of Bermondsey, is the sole survivor of a pair of quaintly-named pair of alleys: Farthing and Halfpenny. The names, like Allfarthing Lane, were an indication of their size. Or, if you prefer, it was named for Aleyn Ferthing, a Southwark representative in the 14th-century.

New Change near Cheapside was formerly Old Change, originally just Change (it became Old in 1293); it took its name from a building where bullion was stored before being taken to the Mint to be coined.

Pennyfields, in Poplar, was recorded as Penny Field in 1663; the name was probably an indication of the rental level. At the turn of the century the Limehouse area, centring around Pennyfields, was London’s Chinatown, considered to be be a hive of crime and opium dens.

The writer Arnold Bennett visited the area, in the company of a police inspector, in 1925. “We saw no vice whatsoever,” he remarked. The worst that he saw was tea-drinking in restaurants at around eleven o’clock in the evening . The people looked decent, he added, and there were a few “nice-looking prostitutes”.

EAS_3905Pound Lane in Willesden has an affluent-sounding name is nothing to do with money: it was the location of a pound for stray animals, and was once called Petticote Stile Lane.

I am going to cheat and include Clink Street in Southwark, on the basis that money clinks. This is a centuries-old name that still lives on in modern idiom when people talk about being put ‘in the clink’, or in prison. The name dates back to the prison there as early as the 14th century, but there is no clear derivation of the name.

The most popular theory is that ‘clink’ was the sound made when the irons when the blacksmith’s hammer secured the irons around the wrists or ankles of the prisoners. Another theory is that the Flemish word ‘klink’ means ‘latch’, and may have referenced that on the door of the prison.

Prisons, prostitutes, and bishops

Clink info plaqueToday’s stop along our London Moonwalk magical mystery tour is Clink Street, with a centuries-old name that still lives on in modern idiom when people talk about being put ‘in the clink’, or in prison.

The contradictorily named Liberty of the Clink, outside the jurisdiction of the City of London until the 16th century, was attached to the manor of the Bishops of Winchester who occupied much of the land on the south bank of the Thames. (And rented out the brothels there, as in Cardinal Cap Alley.)

The Clink prison, from which the street takes its name, was used for those who contravened the laws governing the ‘stews’, or brothels: as the 16th-century London history John Stow tells us, “for such as should babble, frey, or break the peace on the said bank, or in the brothel houses”. The first prison on this site, dating back to 1127, was  a cellar in the Palace of the Bishop of Winchester.

Clink Street and rose window
Clink Street with a view of the rose window

It also housed ‘prisoners of conscience’ – those who disagreed with the religious beliefs of the current monarch. Some of those prisoners of conscience were the founder members of the movement that eventually headed for America as the Pilgrim Fathers.

The Clink prison was destroyed in the Gordon Riots of 1780 and never rebuilt. Much of the rest of the area was also destroyed in the blitz during World War II; when the damage was being cleared up, part of the west wall and the 14th-century rose window of the Bishop’s palace was discovered and preserved.

Today, Clink Street houses the Clink Prison museum, as well as leading to the replica of the Golden Hind – Sir Francis Drake’s galleon.

Don’t forget: if you want to support Walk the Walk and its efforts on behalf of breast cancer charities, you can sponsor me by visiting my fundraising page here.

 

Golden Hing
The Golden Hind