London’s saintly names: from Catherine Wheel Alley to St Mary Axe

EAS_4059A while ago, this blog featured a religious-themed post, in which I made the brash statement that, “There are too many streets with churches, cathedrals, temples, and saints in their names for me to go into them here.”

As ever, the readers of this blog make it what it is, and @MattF’s recent comment regarding last week’s post was no exception: “Saint Lawrence Jewry (different church, same saint) has a griddle as a weathervane to signify the manner of Saint Lawrence’s death. Perhaps a future post could look at saints?”

That’s a very good idea, so I shall now eat my words, take a look now at some of the saint streets that have graced this blog and, depending on how that goes, maybe seek out some more in the future.

So let’s start with the above-mentioned church of St Lawrence Jewry. Although it is located in Gresham Street, it is near the former medieval Jewish ghetto, which was centred on the street named Old Jewry – hence the second part of the name. It is one of London’s many buildings that was destroyed in the Great Fire of London and rebuilt by Christopher Wren.

The parish was united with that of St. Mary Magdalen, Milk Street, which was not rebuilt. Milk Street was one of the medieval market streets of London, so probably where milk was sold and Gresham Street takes its name from Thomas Gresham, a merchant and financier. By happy coincidence, Sir Thomas More, who was born in Milk Street, preached in the older church of St Lawrence Jewry.

More himself is considered a saint by the Catholic church; he, like St Lawrence, also had a quip for his executioner (having been sentenced to death after annoying). When he mounted a dilapidated and shaky scaffold, he said to the attending official, “I pray you, Mr Lieutenant, see me safe up and for my coming down, I can shift for myself.”

Before we leave Old Jewry, here is another connection with a saint: Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, also known as Thomas à Becket and later a saint and a martyr, was baptised in the church of Becket was baptised in St Mary Colechurch at the southern end of Old Jewry.

EAS_4075Becket was born at the Cheapside end of Ironmonger Lane, known as ‘Ysmongeres Lane’ around the turn of the 12th century and the haunt of ironmongers. The Ironmongers Company had their original hall here until the 15th century, when they acquired buildings in Fenchurch Street and moved there, along with most of the ironmongers.

On the subject of the recent nautical-themed post, @oldmapman mentioned that the symbol for the parish of St Clement Danes is an anchor and @MattF followed up by saying that the anchor symbolism comes from St Clement having supposedly been martyred by being tied to an anchor and thrown overboard.

St Clement Danes is located on Strand, which takes its name from the Anglo-Saxon for shoreline. So a double nautical connection. Incidentally, the Danes bit comes from (this is one of a few theories) the idea that in the 9th century the Danes colonized the village of Aldwych on the river between the City of London and the future site of Westminster. At the time, half of England was Danish and London was on the dividing line between the English and the Danes.

EAS_4133Although it has been featured a few times in this blog, how can we have a saint theme without St Mary Axe? Boringly, some consider the name to have come from a shop with the sign of an axe. But what fun is that? Much better is that the name comes from the church of St Mary the Virgin, St Ursula and the Eleven Thousand Virgins (converted to warehouses after its suppression in the 16th century).

An ancient king of England – Maurius, father of King Cole – gave his daughter Ursula (presumably King Cole’s sister) permission to travel to Germany with her large and chaste retinue (the aforementioned 11,000 virgins) who were then beheaded by Attila and his Huns. Using axes. Apparently an axe was once stored in the church, and gave it the less cumbersome name of St Mary Axe.

Tooley StreetTooley Street is a corruption of St Olave’s Street – which is how it was recorded at the end of the 16th century; it then became St Tooley’s Street and later Towles Street. St Olave, or Olaf, was king of Norway and later became a saint. Before his canonization, however, as king of Norway he was at war with the aforementioned colonizing Danes.

The story goes that in 1014 Olaf’s fleet, on its way up the Thames, was stopped at the heavily Danish-fortified London Bridge. Olaf had his ships covered with protective wicker work, moved in close to the bridge, attached ropes to the piles and sailed off, bringing the whole thing down. It is, unfortunately, possible that this story is not entirely true. However, it sounds good and it is also considered by some to be the basis for the nursery rhyme ‘London Bridge is falling down’.

Catherine Wheel 2Catherine Wheel Alley takes its name from a once-popular inn sign. (During the time of the Puritans, when overtly religious symbols were frowned on, most landlords changed the name to the Cat and Wheel.)

The Catherine Wheel, adopted as part of the arms of the Worshipful Company of Turners’ Company, was a representation of the martyrdom of St Catherine of Alexandria, a Christian virgin, who was martyred in the early 4th century.

Despite the tradition of the Catherine wheel, she was not actually tortured on a wheel, though was the plan of the emperor Maxentius. He was enraged by her refusal to marry him and condemned her to death on a spiked breaking wheel but, at her touch, the wheel was miraculously destroyed. Not to be thwarted in his evil plan, Maxentius finally had her beheaded.

Barley Mow Passage takes its name, some say, from from a relatively comment inn sign – ‘mow’ in this case is a heap, and barley is a major ingredient of beer. Others, however, think that it is a corruption of Bartholomew: the land in the area once belonged to the priory of St Bartholomew. The Priory Church of Saint Bartholomew the Great is London’s oldest surviving church and it is located in Cloth Fair.

From the 12th century to the 19th century a three-day fair – Bartholomew Fair – was held in the Smithfield area; money charged on tolls for goods was a source of income for the priory of St Bartholomew. The fair was, early on, essentially a trade fair for the woollen and drapery industries, with Italian and Flemish cloth merchants.

Bartholomew Fair gradually attracted more and more people, and soon the speciality of cloth was virtually overlooked. Unfortunately, as was not uncommon with many fairs, Bartholomew Fair degenerated into a riotous occasion. By the early 19th century, pickpockets and brawlers dominated, and the fair was discontinued in 1855. (41 Cloth Fair is one of the only houses in the City to have escaped the flames and lays claim to being the oldest London house in existence.)

There is a Bolt Court, which takes its name from the rebus of the Bolton family, who owned a great deal of local property. The 16th-century Prior William Bolton was one of those who did a great deal to restore the nearby church of St Bartholomew: he installed the oriel window (supposedly so that he could keep an eye on the monks).

The rebus is a device once commonly used to denote names by the pictorial representation of words and the Bolton rebus was a birdbolt (a short blunt arrow used to kill birds without piercing them) through a tun (a large barrel or fermenting vat). There is still an example of this rebus in the church.

One last saint reference – there are many more, so this theme can be revised several more times if required or desired – can go to St Peter. Cross Keys was a popular tavern sign (there is a Cross Keys Close in Marylebone), deriving from Christian heraldry as the keys of St Peter (crossed keys appear on the papal arms), or the keys to heaven.

The sign of the crossed keys was once used for one of the Bankside brothels, and there was once a Cross Keys tavern in Wood Street, where the young Dickens was sent on his arrival in London.

The close in Marylebone may have been named from an inn that once stood there; it may also have been named in view of the fact that a carpenter called Philip Keys built the close in the late 18th century.

Advertisements

London’s clothing streets: from Boot Street to Whalebone Court

Buckle Street2Before Boot Street (alphabetically speaking) there are various Ascot Houses, Courts, and Lodges, but they are all buildings rather than streets. So let’s move along alphabetically to Boot Street near Old Street station in Islington.

One thing I have learned about this street is that it was used as a location for the filming of The Crying Game: the exterior of the Metro Pub, where Dil sings the title song, was an empty property behind a pub on the corner with Coronet Street.

Buckle Street, in East London (not far from Amazon Street, Batty Street and Coke Street) may, like Bucklersbury, take its name from the Bukerel (or Buckerell or Bucherel) family who were London property owners in the 12th century. The family had a fortified mansion, or bury, on the banks of the Walbrook – one of London’s now subterranean rivers, which gave its name to a ward and to the street that still bears its name.

(By the 13th century it was less than salubrious as it had to keep being cleared of dung.) Stow refers to “a manor and tenements pertaining to one Buckle, who dwelt there, and kept his courts”.

Cloak LaneSpeaking of the Walbrook and dung, that takes us to Cloak Lane, which has featured a few times in this blog and is also included in the ‘scatalogical London’ category. Fittingly, it once led over the Walbrook, when it was called Horseshoe Bridge. The current name first appears in the late 17th century and is likely to have derived from the Latin ‘cloaca’, or sewer.
Clothier Street cropA more glamorous, though unlikely in the extreme, explanation is that it refers to the cloak dropped by Lady Elizabeth Hatton as she was carried away from a party by Old Nick from Bleeding Heart Yard. Similarly, Shoe Lane is supposed to be where she dropped her shoe; again, this is – alas – unlikely. More likely is the theory that an early reference to it as ‘Scholanda’ (Show-land) means that the lane was once a place for the setting out and showing of water-borne merchandise to tax collectors and customers.

Other explanations are that Scholanda could also have meant ‘land shaped like a shoe’ and that the lane led to such a piece of land. Alternatively, it could have taken its name from an ancient well –
Showelle – at the north end of the lane.

Give me Lady Elizabeth any time.

Next, we have Cloth Court, Cloth Fair, and Cloth Street, all of which presumably get their name in the same way. From the 12th century to the 19th century a three-day fair – Bartholomew Fair – was held in the Smithfield area; money charged on tolls for goods was a source of income for the priory of St Bartholomew.

The fair was, early on, essentEAS_4009ially a trade fair for the woollen and drapery industries, with Italian and Flemish cloth merchants, though it later became a rowdy free-for-all. By the early 19th century, pickpockets and brawlers dominated, and the fair was discontinued in 1855.

Incidentally, 41 Cloth Fair, built between 1597 and 1614, is one of the only houses in the City to have escaped the flames and lays claim to being the oldest London house in existence.

From cloth to clothiers: Clothier Street (also known once as Crab Court and Carter Street), near Houndsditch has a connection to the rag trade 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.

Petticoat Lane viewNot far away is Middlesex Street, otherwise known as Petticoat Lane. The earlier, 17th-century, name could be from silk weavers, who would have made petticoats, and who settled in the area; or from the secondhand clothes dealers who had begun to trade in the lane even back then.

Henry Mayhew, a 19th-century social researcher, journalist, and playwright, said of the lane that to look down it was “to look down a vista of many-coloured garments”. Less poetically, FH Habben, a contemporary of Mayhew, and a somewhat curmudgeonly scholar of London’s streets, stated firmly that the name was “The English form, I presume, of petit court, the little short lane.”

Fashion Street is nothing to do with fashion but takes its name from the Fasson brothers, Thomas and Lewis, who owned the land upon which the street was built in the 1650s. On second thought, there is also a clothing connection of sorts: Thomas was a skinner.

Hanger Lane in West London was called Hanger Hill in 1710; it was the site of a wood called ‘le Hangrewood’ in the 14th century. The word comes from the Old English ‘hangra’, meaning a wooded hill with clinging steep slopes.

Hat & Mitre Court, little more than a slight gap between buildings, doubles up on the headgear theme, as ‘mitre’ is an ecclesiastical hat of sorts. The second half of the name comes from an 18th-century tavern called the Mitre, a common tavern name, especially in areas, such as this (the priory of St John was nearby), with a large ecclesiastical population.

Why hat as well is not clear , though it was also common in signs, both for hatters’ shops and for taverns. Possibly a new landlord of the Mitre once had a tavern called the Hat and was reluctant to give up the name and possibly lose customers. Combining the names of two taverns was a ruse often employed for landlords to get the best of both worlds as far as customers went.

From head to foot with Hosier Lane, which is exactly as it sounds. In the 14th century the hosiers lived and worked here, making their age’s equivalent of today’s trousers: fashionable garments that replaced the robes of previous generations. These hose were brightly dyed, often with legs in contrasting colours.

The houses in the lane were, at one time, nearly all built of timber, probably dating back to the 17th century. There was a barber’s shop on the corner, in which was displayed a dagger said to be the one with which Walworth killed Wat Tyler, virtually on that spot.

Keeping up with the clothes theme, in the 18th century, the lane was a resort spot during the time of Bartholomew Fair, when “all the houses were made public for tippling”.

Sadly, Naked Boy Court no longer exists, but takes its name from a sign that was supposed to have been a comment on the rapidly-changing fashions of the time. Apparently the sign painters had so much difficulty keeping up with them that the artist responsible for this one didn’t even try.

Silk Street apparently comes from the silk weaving carried on in 17th-century London 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.

Skinners LaneSkin Market Place behind the Globe Theatre takes its names from London’s (legal) skin trade: “the skins from nearly all the sleep slaughtered in London” were sold in the market here. Skinners Lane on the other side of the Thames, was known as Maiden Lane and renamed for much the same reason, except that the skins in this case were furs.

There is also a Skinner Street; although one theory is that in the early 19th century an Alderman Skinner was the driving force behind building the street, it is more likely that it is named because in 1630 eight acres of land were bequeathed to the Worshipful Company of Skinners by John Meredith.

Wardrobe Terrace cropWardrobe Place and Wardrobe Terrace take their name from a house that belonging to Sir John Beauchamp was purchased in 1359 by Edward II for use as the storeroom for the royal clothing worn on state occasions. In Shakespeare’s will he bequeathed, to his daughter, land near the Wardrobe.

Weaver Street, like Silk Street, is named for the weaving industry that became prevalent in this area, especially after the 19th century. There is also a Weavers Lane, on the south bank of the Thames, probably so named for the same reason.

Whalebone CourtFinally, Whalebone Court, according to an 18th-century source, was so called because whalebone was boiled there, presumably in preparation for it being made into corsets.