Ironmonger Row: lizards, Formosans and laudanum

Following on from yesterday’s post about livery companies and their connections with London’s streets, let’s revisit the Worshipful Company of Ironmongers, partly because I gave them such short shrift and partly because of a (tenuous) connection to a great eccentric.

To start with, the company does give its name to Ironmonger Lane near St Paul’s cathedral. It was was once known as ‘Ysmongeres Lane’ around the turn of the 12th century and was also 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.

It also gives its name to Ironmonger Row further north; once largely inhabited by ironmongers, the row was built in the 18th century on land bequeathed to the Ironmongers Company in 1527 by Thomas Mitchell, ironmonger and citizen of London. The bequest involved 10 acres, so there was lots of room for more streets to be built, and others were Mitchell Street, Helmet Row, and Lizard Street.

The derivation of the name Mitchell Street is pretty obvious, but Helmet Row and Lizard Street may give pause to think. Unless you see the coat of arms of the Ironmongers Company, which features two salamanders (lizards) and a helmet.

But back to Ironmongers Row and perhaps its most eccentric inhabitant: George Psalmanazar, who was, perhaps, as famous for being an enthusiastic user of laudanum as for being a fraud. He claimed to be the first Formosan (Formosa being Taiwan today) to visit Europe and wrote extensively about the country in his book An Historical and Geographical Description of Formosa, an Island subject to the Emperor of Japan.

As the name alone suggests, it was as fictional as it was detailed. A couple of its highlights were the ‘facts’ that men walked naked except for a gold or silver plate to cover their genitals and that Formosans were polygamous and husbands had a right to eat their wives for infidelity.

Psalmanazar lived to be eighty-four and attributed his good health to the “ten or twelve spoonfuls of laudanum, and very often more” that he drank every night.