Leading up to International Women’s Day with connections to London street names

March 8 is International Women’s Day, so I thought I would lead up to it with an edited rerun of my post from two years ago on that very topic. You can read the post here in full, but I am also providing below synopsis. (Warning: some of the links to London streets are tenuous even by my standards.)

We start with Phillis Wheatley, a former slave who became the first published African-American female poet. The Boston-based US publishers of the 18th century did not want to be associated with a book written by a slave so her work Various Subjects, Religious and Moral was published by a company based in Aldgate.

Aldgate was one of the original gates of London and is the most easterly; it is first recorded in 1052 as Æst geat, or east gate, bu in 1108 is recorded as Alegate by 1108. All of which makes the most sense for the derivation of the name, but some of the other theories are that it is Old Gate (Aeld Gate), Ale Gate, from a tavern, or All Gate, meaning the gate was free to all.

Margaret Cavendish, born in 1623, was a poet, philosopher, essayist, and playwright who had her works published under her own name, unusual for women of the time. One of her brothers was an original member of the Royal Society and, after much argument and dissatisfaction, Margaret was eventually granted permission to attend a session of the Society, and she became the first woman to do. (The Royal Society was founded in 1660, but women were not permitted by statute to become fellows until 1945.)

The Society was once based in Crane Court, which takes its name from a 14th-century brewhouse called the Crane and Three Hoops. There is another theory that it was once called Two Crane Yard from a family coat of arms with two cranes. 

Frances (Fanny) Burney, later Madame D’Arblay, was a talented and gifted – and largely self-taught – writer and a woman of huge courage. She was a breast cancer survivor and wrote the earliest known patient’s perspective of a mastectomy – in her case, performed without anaesthetic. I recently wrote about her and her connection with Jane Austen, and you can read that post here.

There is a D’Arblay Street, named after her (but no Burney Street) and Fanny lived for a time in Half Moon Street, which was built in 1730 and takes its name from an old ale house that stood at the corner.

Another famous resident of Half Moon Street was Lola Montez, who was arrested for bigamy in a house in the street. Born Marie Dolores Eliza Rosanna Gilbert in Limerick, Ireland, she later claimed to be Spanish, adopted the name Lola Montez, and became a dancer and adventuress who was as famous for her lovers as for her dancing. She was the inspiration for the song ‘Whatever Lola Wants’.

Mary Frith, otherwise known as Moll Cutpurse, was born around 1584 and lived and died in Fleet Street. She was described by the Newgate Calendar as “A famous Master-Thief and an Ugly, who dressed like a Man, and died in 1663”. She is considered to have been, at least in part, inspiration for Daniel Defoe’s book Moll Flanders. It is believed that John Milton wrote her epitaph, though her headstone was destroyed in the Great Fire of London.

Fleet Street takes its name from the River Fleet, which was not necessarily fast, but took its name from an Anglo-Saxon word meaning a tidal inlet. Although it still flows, the Fleet is now underground and is used as a sewer.

Phoebe Hessel, who gives her name both to Amazon Street and Hessel Street, is another woman who was famous for dressing as a man; in her case she disguised her gender to enlist as a man in the 5th Regiment of Foot, supposedly to be with her lover, Samuel Golding. She eventually moved to Brighton where she died in 1821, at the alleged age of 108 and was buried in the parish churchyard with honours.

Lady Elizabeth Hatton provides one of the many, theories behind the name of Bleeding Heart Yard: she was the basis of the legend about a beautiful gypsy who made a deal with the devil in order to be able to capture the heart of a rich lord. A more recent post on the Ingoldsby Legend of Bleeding Heart Yard story can be found here.

Another real woman to provide a theory behind a London street name (in this case, La Belle Sauvage Yard, which no longer exists) is Pocahontas, a Native American who was captured by the English during Anglo-Indian hostilities in 1613, and held for ransom. During her captivity, she converted to Christianity, took the name Rebecca, and chose to remain with the English. She married tobacco planter John Rolfe with whom she had a son, was feted by London Society, and died at the age of 21 in Gravesend on the family’s way to Virginia.

Tomorrow I hope to publish a post about more women worthy of note, and streets with which they are, however tenuously, associated.

What’s in a name? Petticoat Lane and Of Alley

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I had my knuckles rapped metaphorically by a Twitter bot – did I really just write that? – someone who has taken to Twitter to take umbrage at Madame D’Arblay, née Frances Burney, being referred to as Fanny in yesterday’s post on Half Moon Street. What’s the big deal, I wondered, what’s in a name? That made me think of some of the ‘proper’ names in London that are not nearly as much fun as their previous names.

Let’s start with the obvious: Middlesex Street. Boring, eh? Don’t most people know it as Petticoat Lane? I used to live in Reading where there was a passage properly called Union Street but commonly known (because of a long-term fishmonger there) as Smelly Alley. It was years before I learned that it was really Union Street.

Similarly, I remember trying to find Petticoat Lane in a London A-Z and discovering that it was really Middlesex Street. Yawn. Why, in 1830, Petticoat Lane was renamed I don’t know, but apparently the lane was once a boundary between the City of London and the county of Middlesex. 

There is a history of renaming the lane: in the 14th century this was a country lane called Berwardes Lane, after the local landowner. By the 16th century it ran through a pig farm and was renamed Hog Lane.

It then, presumably through a combination pf the French silk weavers who settled in the area and the secondhand clothes dealers who established this as the centre of London’s used clothes district, became Petticoat Lane.

One of my favourite sources for information on London street names is a 19th-century writer called FH Habben who wrote a book called London street names; their origin, signification, and historic value, published in 1896. He (like the abovementioned bot) could be a little testy at times, particularly when it came to the meaningless renaming of streets and believed this to be an “instance of inappropriate name change”. He ignored the whole rag trade, stating firmly that the name came from the English form of petit court, a little short lane.”

York Place.jpgAnother favourite name of mine that has, again I have no idea why, been changed from fun to boring is Of Alley, which is now York Place and was once part of the house and gardens belonging to George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham. Both of them: father and son, royalists both, who were the first two holders of the title of Duke of Buckingham, and both called George Villiers.

The second duke, a loyal follower of Charles II, fled the country with his king when England became an unhealthy place for them. Although his property was confiscated by Cromwell’s Parliament, Villiers regained it after the Restoration and own return to England.

The property didn’t do him much good: Villiers junior managed to run up so much in the way of debt that he was forced to sell his land. In 1674 it became the possession of a property developer on the condition that the streets built on the land were given Villers’ name. All of them. There were five in total, and they became George Street, Villiers Street, Duke Street (now gone), Of Alley, and Buckingham Street.

At least the street signs there still proclaim that it is York Place, formerly Of Alley.