From Air and Wood to Bell and Gun: London’s noun street names

Flintlock CloseBut first, a small diversion. It was Groundhog Day on Tuesday (February 2nd) so I should point out that, regarding the hog bit, there is a pig-related street names post on this blog and you can read it here.

As far as the ground bit goes, there has been a bit of a debate about Golden Square and whether it was really a plague pit. Some sources say it was, others are adamant that it was not.

Still, it was a good excuse for me to start looking into plague pits, and I found a great website with a list of confirmed and possible plague pit sites. So that could be a post theme for the not too distant future.

Air Street cropIn the meantime, before I lose the thread of parts of speech street names, why not look at a few noun street names? (We have done quite a few of them before, in other categories, such as clothing and culinary, but we won’t let that slow us down.)

And we can start with Air Street, just off Regent Street. This street was in existence by 1659, when it would have been at the very western end of the city; however, its name is nothing to do with air or open space. It was also called Ayr Street and may have been named for Thomas Ayres, a local builder and brewer. Apparently it is “innocent of literary or historic associations”.

EAS_3953Bell Yard off Fleet Street takes its name from an inn that no longer stands, and where William Shakespeare was a frequent patron. The only surviving letter to him was penned here in 1598 by Richard Quyney (who wrote to his “loving friend and countryman’). Quyney’s son Thomas married Shakespeare’s younger daughter. Charles Dickens had an office in the yard in 1831.

Frying Pan Alley cropFrying Pan Alley takes its name from a shop sign, common with ironmongers and braziers, and also used for taverns. The Clerkenwell historian WJ Pinks said of an earlier alley with this name that it was only two and a half feet wide. Lest the reader should be in any doubt as to how narrow that was, he goes on to inform us that there was not enough “room in it to get a full sized coffin out without turning it on edge”.

Gravel LaneNames like Dunghill Lane and Filth Alley help conjure up a pretty good image of what roads in London were like some time ago and puts the modern problem of ‘doggie doo’ into context. Gravel Lane, along with its neighbour Stoney Lane, was probably so named because of the fact that it had, unusually, a surface other than mud. Up until the 17th century, this was relatively rare – certainly rare enough for names like Gravel Lane and Paved Alley.

Gun StGun Street takes its name from the nearby artillery grounds. The artist Mark Gertler (see Elder Street) was born here in 1891. There was once a Gun Square, and there is a Gunmakers Lane, which takes its name from the London Small Arms Factory, which was on adjoining land.


Wood Street’s name dates back to the 12th century, supposedly from the fact that all the houses there were built of wood (in spite of Richard I’s farsighted edict that all houses should be built of stone to avoid the risk of fire). It could also be that, as with so many other streets in the Cheapside area, it was given the name wood because wood was sold there. (There was a Roman fort here in the first and second centuries; the north-south road in it coincides with the top end of Wood Street, which could then arguably be the oldest street in the city.)

Oh, yes, Flintlock Close. Sorry, but I haven’t been able to find out anything about this other than that it has a great name and fits in with Gun Street.

The long and short of London’s streets: from Gandalf’s Grapes to Pepys’s coach

Grapes pubHere are two tenuously connected stories (and there will be a bearing on London streets, I promise).

First, in the 80s I worked for an estate agent (a shameful thing in the 80s; the only people worse then than estate agent were the people, like me, who marketed them); when Docklands was up and coming most press releases about the area mentioned the fact that Ian McKellen lived there.

Far more recently, I was reading a story about a theft of vegetables from the Grapes pub, owned by Sir Ian McKellen, aka Gandalf, and located in Narrow Street. The pub was the model for the Six Jolly Fellowship-Porters tavern in Dickens’ Our Mutual Friend, described as “a tavern of a dropsical appearance”. All that, naturally, made me think about the streets that have names related to length, starting with Narrow Street, so named because – surprise! – it is.

Limehouse was once a centre for world trade, being as it was a good landing place for ships. The area takes its name not from the ‘limeys’, or sailors who would have been much in evidence there, but from the lime kilns Shorts context 2used for making pottery.

(Incidentally, another historic pub in the street in the street, now, alas, closed and a private residence, was the House They Left Behind, so called because it was the only building left standing after bombing during World War II.)

From Narrow Street to Broad Yard. Which isn’t. In 1865 it was described by a local historian, William Pinks, who wrote a History of Clerkenwell, as “a nest of squalid human kennels and fever dens, with reeking dust-heaps before the doors – places without light or ventilation”. It was still, Pinks went on to say, broader than its neighbour, Frying Pan Alley, which was only two feet six inches wide at one point: “there not being room in it to get a full sized coffin out without turning it on edge”, Pinks tells us helpfully.

From width to length, we can start with ‘short’ streets, of which there are a few, including Short Street, Shorter Street, and Short’s Gardens. Short’s Gardens, near Seven Dials, was named for William Short who acquired land here in 1590 and Short Street was named for a 19th-century carpenter, Samuel Short, who built the street. I regret to say that I have yet to discover the reason behind the name of Shorter Street, but presumably it was shorter than something else. Shorter Street

And on to Long Acre, which was formerly a plot of land called ‘The Elms’ or ‘Seven Acres’ and belonging to the monks of Westminster Abbey. The name, as with Bow Street, comes from the shape of the land, which was long and narrow. Its present name dates back to 1612 and the street itself was first laid out in 1615.

The street became a fashionable place to live, and one of its residents was Oliver Cromwell, who lived there from 1637 to 1643.The aristocrat and writer Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, who was baptised at St. Paul’s Church in Covent Garden, also lived there.

Long Acre was also key to some important industries: it was once a centre for coach makers, one of whose customers in 1668 was Samuel Pepys, and it was later the home of Merryweather & Sons, builders of steam fire engines and steam tram engines.