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.

Coldbath Square: bath-related streets and Roman graffiti on National Bubble Bath Day

It’s a bit late to say ‘Happy New Year’, but welcome to 2019 in the world of London street names. Today, bath-related streets, but first please indulge me as I provide a bit of back story to this blog. The aim of starting a blog was to help me focus my mind on getting all my street name notes and draft text into shape so that I could try and have it all published as a book.

The other day my husband pointed out gently but firmly that while I was a natural-born blogger (subtext: I like to witter), the blog had been going for some years now and the book itself has been in the making for decades rather than years. Wasn’t it time, he asked, that I did what my mother would inelegantly phrase as ‘piss or get off the pot’? I also have an old friend who keeps asking me (his own way of gentle nagging) to let him know when it’s published so he can buy a copy. Yes, you, you know who you are, if you’re reading this.

That means trying to draw a line under all the new street names and bits of information I keep coming across and trying to crystallise what I already have. So, for my most loyal readers, and you also know who you are, there may be a fair amount of repetition as I start to distill my blog ramblings and clean up text of streets that have been covered more than once in this blog.

On that note, let’s look at some bath-related streets as I have seen various references to National Bubble Bath Day.

We can start with the most obvious, in terms of name, which is Coldbath Square. (Pete, if you are reading this, I know you are bound to have been there.) The name comes from a local spring discovered in 1697 by Walter Baynes and converted to a bath, which was said to be a great cure for nervous illnesses.

There was, evidently, no good reason for supposing that, despite the name, the water was any colder than that of any other spring or well, such as the nearby Clerkenwell. In any case, the bath was famous with Londoners and remained open until 1870.

A famous 18th-century strong man, Thomas Topham), had a pub in Coldbath Fields, 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 to try and install calm. The prison was closed in 1877 and demolished in 1889.

The poet 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.

Stew Lane takes its name from the ‘stews’, or brothels, which crowded along the banks of the Thames from the 12th to the 17th century. They tended to be on the south side but some – like this lane – were on the north bank. The stews were licensed and regulated by the government to prevent any debauchery of the respectable wives and daughters of London and, says London historian John Stow, “for the repair of incontinent men to the like women”.

A less colourful explanation for the name is that it was from a bath house for those in need of a hot bath.

Water Lane, to the east, was the setting for an old Roman bath, popular at one time with visitors to London, and described by Charles Dickens in David Copperfield. 

Cheapside, which takes its name from the Anglo-Saxon ‘ceap’, to buy or barter, was once known as West Cheap to distinguish it from Eastcheap, and was one of the busiest thoroughfares in London and the city’s main food market. It was also the location of the main baths of Roman London, built in the first or second century. Two individuals of this time left their mark: a child evidently ran across the tiles of the baths when they were still soft, leaving the mark of footprints.

My very favourite bath reference in all of my collected street names and their stories is   another tile that bears an early example of graffiti: “Austalis has been running off on his own for the past fortnight.”

If anyone reading this knows any more I would be exceedingly grateful for any further light that can be shed on Austalis or what or who he was running to or from.