London’s culinary streets: from bacon to buns

Well, readers, I appear to have painted myself into a corner with trying to be too specific with categories of culinary street names (see yesterday’s post) and now I’ve messed up the alphabetical order of them. Since even I need some kind of system I am throwing categories to the wind and backtracking to the letter ‘b’. Starting with Bacon’s Lane in Highgate, and Bacon Grove in Bermondsey.

Bacon’s Lane is not really about bacon: it is named after Sir Francis Bacon; it marks the spot of the house where he died, a victim of his own thirst for knowledge: he contracted pneumonia after investigating the principles of refrigeration, a pursuit that involved him stuffing a fowl with snow to see if it would preserve the meat.

Incidentally, Bacon’s other connections to London streets include the Strand (or just Strand, if you prefer), where he was born, and Bleeding Heart Yard. He was an unsuccessful suitor of Lady Elizabeth Hatton, who is the source of one of the theories behind the name of Bleeding Heart Yard.

Bacon Grove is also not about bacon; however, it does not take its name from Francis Bacon. It is from Josiah Bacon, a 17th-century leather merchant whose will provided for the foundation of Bacon’s School (later a City Technology College, and now an Academy called Bacon’s College), along with an endowment of £150 per year.

In the interest of full disclosure I should say that there is also a Bacon Street in East London, but I still don’t know the derivation of that particular name.

Bunhill Row is definitely not really a culinary street name as it it nothing to do with buns. It is, more disgustingly, from the nearby fields of the same name, originally Bone Hill Fields.

The fields were a burial ground dating from 1549 when a thousand carts full of bones from the over-crowded charnel houses at St Paul’s dumped their loads there. The name was in use before then, so it seems likely that people had historically taken advantage of the marshy land there for dumping various items, including bones.

In the 17th century it was intended as a burial ground for victims of the 1665 plague; it was never used for that purpose, nor was it ever consecrated, leading it to become a popular burial ground with the non-conformists. Following the Burial Act of 1852, allowing such places to be closed when they became full, the last burial that took place there was in 1854 when a 15-year-old girl was laid to rest.

Among the bones of 120,000 people who were interred in Bunhill Fields were John Bunyan, William Blake, and Daniel Defoe. There is a memorial, erected in 1870, to mark Defoe’s resting place; the money was obtained from a collection taken up by local schoolchildren. There is also an adjoining Quaker churchyard that contains the body of George Fox.

John Milton had a house in Bunhill Row from 1662 until his death in 1674.

Happily, Bunhouse Place (not Funhouse, as my computer is convinced) in Chelsea does relate to food – Chelsea buns, what else? Mr and Mrs Hand established the Chelsea Bun House near here in the 18th century. Jonathan Swift was sold a stale bun one day and he wrote in a letter dated 1711, “Pray, are not the fine buns sold here in our town; was it not Rrrrrrrrrare Chelsea buns? I bought one to-day in my walk; it cost me a penny; it was stale, and I did not like it…”

Despite Swift’s disappointment, Bun House did a storming trade, and was patronized by royalty; there were said to be as many as 50,000 people waiting outside on Good Fridays to buy hot cross buns, traditionally eaten on that day. This caused some consternation among the neighbours and in 1793 Mrs Hand declared that she would not sell any hot cross buns on that day.

This was made clear (or maybe not) in a notice on the shop window, which read:

“Mrs. Hand respectfully informs her friends and the public, that in consequence of the great concourse of people which assembled before her house at a very early hour, on the morning of Good Friday last, by which her neighbours (with whom she has always lived in friendship and repute) have been much alarmed and annoyed; it having also been intimated, that to encourage or countenance a tumultuous assembly at this particular period might be attended with consequences more serious than have hitherto been apprehended; desirous, therefore, of testifying her regard and obedience to those laws by which she is happily protected, she is determined, though much to her loss, not to sell Cross Buns on that day to any person whatever, but Chelsea buns as usual.”

Despite the fact that business began to decline in 1804, there were still nearly a quarter of a million buns sold on Good Friday 1839, the year when the Bun House finally closed.

In 1592 it was made illegal to sell hot cross buns except at burials, on Good Friday, or at Christmas. Those who ignored the edict had to forfeit their buns to the poor.

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Hand Court, shop signs and plague pits

Yesterday’s post involved Tokenhouse Yard, mentioned in Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year; another street mentioned in that account was Hand Alley, near to Houndsditch. The alley, like Bunhill Row and Golden Square, stood on the site of one of the many communal pits for victims of the Great Plague in 1665.

In Defoe’s book he says: “The upper end of Hand Alley, in Bishopsgate Street, which was then a green field, and was taken in particularly for Bishopsgate parish, though many of the carts out of the city brought their dead thither also, particularly out of the parish of St All-hallows on the Wall.”

There is still a Hand Court in London, near Chancery Lane. As with many streets, the name could have come from a sign. In the days when the majority of people could not read, it was important for shopkeepers to have unequivocal signs (unlike taverns, where memorable and unusual signs were popular).

The hand was often used in conjunction with other items: a hand with a coffee pot was the sign of a coffee house; and hand in a glove meant a glover; and a hand and shears was the sign for a tailor. There were also occasions where the use of a hand on a sign had a special significance.

According to the 19th century writer John Camden Hotten: “where the sign is painted with a woman’s hand in it, ‘tis a bawdy house”.

Signs with a hand and heart, or hand in hand, were common in the Fleet Street of the 18th century, as it was an area with many marriage brokers. The Hand in Hand sign was then adopted by many taverns and it is possible that the court took its name from one such tavern.

There are not many body parts in London street names, but there are a couple, so more of that in a later post.

Tokenhouse Yard, the Royal Society, and the Great Plague

Tokenhouse Yard copyYesterday’s post made reference to Tokenhouse Yard and, as promised, here is some more on that City of London street. The derivation of the name is fairly straightforward: there once stood in the yard a house where tokens were issued.

Simple. But, yes, there is more to the story.

The tokens were issued by tradesmen in London and other cities to provide a means of offering currency in smaller amounts. For centuries there was no copper coinage in England: Elizabeth I was, apparently, particularly biased against copper coins. Although copper coins were issued at various times, it was not until 1672, in the reign of Charles II, that copper coins (halfpence and farthings) were declared legal tender and tokens were no longer permitted.

According to Charles II’s proclamation at the time copper coins were finally made legal, anyone who sought to counterfeit any of the new halfpence or farthings were to be considered “utterly inexcusable”. Their contempt of his law and government should cause them to be “chastised with exemplary severity”.

The yard was built by Sir William Petty, an English economist, scientist and philosopher who served under Oliver Cromwell and was able to survive through the reigns of Charles II and James II. He was a charter member of the Royal Society.

Defoe_Journal_of_the_Plague_YearTokenhouse Yard features in Daniel Defoe’s fictionalised account of the Great Plague of London, A Journal of the Plague Year. He writes: “Passing through Tokenhouse Yard, in Lothbury, of a sudden a casement violently opened just over my head, and a woman gave three frightful screeches, and then cried, ‘Oh! death, death, death!’ in a most inimitable tone, which struck me with horror, and a chilliness in my very blood.”

Although Defoe was only three when the plague broke out, but it is assumed that he based much of the work on the journals of his uncle, Henry Foe. Defoe strove so hard to provide a believable account of the plague that his novel is argued to be more non-fiction than fiction and to be more detailed than Samuel Pepys’s contemporary, first-person account.

Corn markets, Charlotte Bronte, and an architect’s revenge

EAS_4118Continuing our magical mystery Moonwalk London tour, let’s look at Cornhill, not very far from the eastern end of the proposed route and the highest point in the City of London. It was so called, according to Stow, “of a corn market, time out of mind there holden”.

Given that Stow was writing in the 16th century, time out of mind for him was indeed a long time ago and, in fact, the name can be traced as far back as 1100. The name was, as is the case in so many London street names, a simple statement of what went on there.

The poet Thomas Gray, who penned one of the most widely quoted poems in the English language: Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard, was born in Cornhill. One of the famous lines from this poem gave Thomas Hardy the title of one of his books: “Far from the madding crowd’s ignoble strife”.

Daniel Defoe had a hosiers shop there, and it was also where he was pilloried in 1703 for his unappreciated pamphlet, ‘The Shortest Way with the Dissenters’.

The publishers Smith and Elder had an office in Cornhill in the 19th century; many authors crossed their doorstep, including two sisters who had to appear in person to prove that they were Anne and Charlotte Bronte rather than Acton and Currer Bell. Today marks the 198th anniversary of the birth of Charlotte Bronte.

Charlotte Bronte
Charlotte Bronte

In the 15th century Cornhill had the dubious distinction of being a fence’s paradise, and a drinker’s haven: there were many taverns where wine could be bought by the pint for a penny and bread came free with it.

St Peter’s Cornhill was, for a time, considered to be the oldest church in England and has the only chancel-screen known to have been designed by Christopher Wren. It also possesses 19th-century gargoyles, on the street side of the church, which are an architect’s revenge on an obstreperous rector.

Building plans, which the rector said encroached on church land, were forced back to the drawing board. As a result, one of the three gargoyles, known as the Cornhill Devils, was given the face of the determined man of the cloth.

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.

Crusoe, Friday Street, and the Bank of England

Crusoe and Friday
19th-century depiction of Crusoe and Friday

This day in London’s history: on 2 February 1709, British sailor Alexander Selkirk is rescued after being marooned on a desert island for five years. He was the inspiration behind Daniel Defoe’s most famous work, the novel Robinson Crusoe. In Mitcham, near Tooting, there is a Friday Road commemorating, along with Crusoe and Island roads, the fact that Daniel Defoe lived in the area.

Friday appears to be the only day of the week represented in London street names, and there are a few of them, including Friday Street in the City of London. This may have taken its name from Frigdaeges, an Old English name, but most people plump for John Stow’s theory that it was “so called of fishmongers dwelling there and serving Friday’s market”.

In Catholic England, meat would have been forbidden on Friday – in fact, one man was burnt to death on Tower Hill in 1430 for eating meat on Friday. Fish stalls would, therefore, have been popular for the shoppers buying their groceries along the lanes of Cheapside.

Mermaid Tavern engraving
17th-century engraving supposedly showing the Mermaid Tavern sign

There was a famous tavern that stood in Bread Street but had a side entrance on Friday Street: the Mermaid tavern. It was here, tradition holds, that Sir Walter Raleigh (or Ralegh) instituted the Mermaid Club, the “Fraternity of Sireniacal Gentlemen’, which met, appropriately, on the first Friday of every month.

Grave doubts have been cast, from many quarters, on the truth of the club’s existence, the assertion that Raleigh formed such a club, and that the club included Ben Jonson and William Shakespeare among its members. Leaving aside such wet-blanketism, it is certain that Jonson was an habitué of the Mermaid, and at least possible that he was joined on occasion by Shakespeare.

Sir William Paterson
Sir William Paterson

There was a contrastingly named Wednesday Club, formed in Friday Street by William Paterson, a 17th-century Scottish merchant famous for being the founder of the Bank of England – and infamous for originating the Darien scheme (or Darien Disaster). This was an unsuccessful attempt by the Kingdom of Scotland to become a world trading nation by establishing a colony called Caledonia on the Isthmus of Panama on the Gulf of Darién in the late 1690s.

Ping-pong, burial grounds, and Daniel Defoe

Royal AquariumThis day in London history: on 14 December 1901 (according to various sources), the first table tennis tournament was held at the The Royal Aquarium and Winter Garden, a place of amusement in Westminster. The Aquarium, which opened in 1876 and was demolished in 1903, was on Tothill Street, near Westminster Abbey. (The term ping-pong was trademarked in 1901 by British manufacturer J Jaques & Son Ltd.)

The street name comes from Tothill Fields, and there are a number of theories as to the origin of the name Tothill. The most likely is that, as the highest point in Westminster, it was a ‘toot’ or beacon hill. Another theory is that it was from the Druid divinity Teut.

Tothill Fields was a once burial ground; following the Battle of Worcester – the final battle of the English Civil War – many of Charles II’s Scottish allies were either buried here or (for those remaining alive), “driven like a herd of swine through Westminster to Tuthill Fields” where they were sold to merchants and sent to the island colony of Barbados.

It later, during the Great Plague of 1665-1666, became a communal burial ground and Samuel Pepys noted in his diary with some dismay that, “I was much troubled this day to hear at Westminster how the officers do bury the dead in the open Tuttle Fields, pretending want of room elsewhere”.

Bunhill Fields
Bunhill Fields with the Defoe obelisk in the background. Photograph: Fin Fahey

Another ‘fields’ that was supposed to be, but never was, used as a plague burial pit was Bunhill Fields. It was here that, following his death as a pauper, Daniel Defoe was buried without ceremony and with his name spelled wrong.

Also on this day in 1952, John Christie strangled his wife Ethel in their home at 10 Rillington Place. The street, perhaps named after the village in Yorkshire, was renamed after local residents became unhappy with the associations of the name, as well as the number of people visiting the site. The new name, Bartle Road, may have come from a local resident.

The great storm and Defoe’s sad end

This day in London’s history: on 25 November the Great Storm of 1703 reached its peak of intensity. The lead roofing was blown off Westminster Abbey and Queen Anne had to shelter in a cellar at St. James’s Palace to avoid collapsing chimneys and part of the roof. On the Thames, around 700 ships were heaped together in the Pool of London, the section downstream from London Bridge.

Defoe The Storm

The storm, the worst in British history, ripped through the country, killing people and livestock and wreaking havoc. Daniel Defoe, who travelled the country afterwards assessing the damage and wrote what is called the first substantial work of modern journalism, called it “The Greatest, the Longest in Duration, the widest in Extent, of all the Tempests and Storms that History gives any Account of since the Beginning of Time”.

Defoe reported that men and animals were lifted off their feet and carried for yards through the air and that lead roofs were ripped from one hundred churches.

Although Defoe went on (in 1719) to write one of the most famous English language novels – Robinson Crusoe – he died penniless and intestate in lodgings in Ropemaker Street, and was buried without ceremony in Bunhill Fields. The final insult was that the local bureaucracy couldn’t even get his name right: he was registered in death as ‘Mr Dubowe, Cripplegate”.