When is a street not a street?

Cardinal CapWhen it’s an alley, or an avenue, or a close, or a lane, or a passage… streets today may be named in a more arbitrary manner, but there was a time when there was a logic to whether a street in London was a street or an alley, or whatever.

EAS_3883That logic hinged around width: for instance, a lane had only to be wide enough for two men to roll a barrel along it, giving the name to hence Fyefoot (Five Foot) Lane. A street, however, in Roman times, was a paved way – or ‘via strata’, which meant that it led somewhere specific.

Garlick HillThat changed over the years and Henry I decreed that streets not only had to be paved but also should be wide enough for sixteen knights to ride abreast. (Whether or not Knightrider Street, or even Giltspur Street, once had room for that many knights is a question that can’t be answered here.) Streets eventually no longer had to lead anywhere other than to the buildings along them.

AMincing Lane cropn avenue also led somewhere: it was once a tree-lined approach to a grand house or landmark. There is an Electric Avenue in Brixton but, just to be awkward, it didn’t actually fit the definition of an avenue: it was opened as a 19th-century late-night shopping street, complete with electric lighting that was designed to be adequate for evening shoppers: “lined with shops, with a lavish display of electric light everywhere”.

Horseferry RoadRoads were routes, originally for horses, from a word meaning ‘to ride’ and generally led from one place to another. Combining routes and horses is Horseferry Road in the City of Westminster. It takes its name from a horse ferry, supposedly older than London Bridge, and the only one of its kind allowed in London. Alleys and passages were also routes to and from somewhere, and other descriptives are from the shape, as in crescent, circle, circus, and square.

EAS_4029The mews, now generally indicative of an upmarket London address, was originally where birds used in falconry were kept; the word ‘mews’ comes from the birds’ loss of feathers – ‘mewing’ or ‘moulting’. Later, when falconry lost popularity, the mews were converted to stables for the royal horses. Eventually, parking being a long-standing problem in London, rows of coach houses were built behind the grand residences and called mews after the royal stables.

New Scotland YardThere is an Early Mews in Camden (though, unfortunately, there is no Late Mews to balance it out). In fact, tardiness (or not) has nothing to do with this name: it comes from the Early family. Joseph and George, plumbers, and John, a builder, built the mews as well as much of the early 19th-century development that was carried on around Camden High Street.

Most others are fairly self-evident, such as corner, place, row, terrace, and so on, and here is an exhausting, if not exhaustive, list of the different types of thoroughfare in London: alley, arcade, avenue, buildings, circle, circus, close, court, crescent, dock, drive, fields, gardens, green, grove, hill, lane, mews, park, passage, place, rents, rise, row, square, street, terrace, vale, walk, way, wharf, yard. Some, not listed here, are weird and wonderful sounding, and for another time.

A quote not to be remembered for making…

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The Great Fire; detail from a painting by an unknown artist

“A woman might piss it out…” is how Sir Thomas Bloodworth, the Lord Mayor of London in 1666, dismissed what would become known as the Great Fire of London, which destroyed three-quarters of the city.

On the 5th of September 1666 the fire that had begun in the early hours of the 2nd of September and raged through London finally halted at the intersection of Cock Lane and Giltspur Street.

EAS_3909Cock Lane probably takes its name from having been a breeding ground for cocks, cockfighting being very popular; quite a few of London’s streets have names that refer to the ‘sport’, such as Cockspur Street. Giltspur Street, on the other hand, refers to oneupmanship in the world of knights.

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The Golden Boy of Pye Corner

But back to the Great Fire and where it halted; the spot is marked by the statue of a fat little boy (the Golden Boy of Pye Corner), which originally stood at the front of a tavern that was destroyed in the fire.

Religious fanatics pointed to the fact that the fire began in Pudding Lane and ended in Pie Corner (near Cock Lane) and said it was a symbolic punishment for the greedy people of London. It was deemed appropriate, therefore, to have a greedy-looking little fellow looking out over a substantially changed London.

Another little fellow who looks out over a very different London from the one he originally knew is the one in Panyer Alley.

Panyer Alley signPanyer Alley was named for a 15th century tavern called the Pannier, or bread basket, a relatively common trade sign. Other names for the tavern, also destroyed in the Great Fire, are given as the Panyer on the Hoop and the Panyer Boy.

Panyer Alley Boy
The Panyer Alley Boy

In the 19th century, excavations uncovered the Panyer Boy in Panyer Alley Steps, near St Paul’s Cathedral. This stone relief of a naked boy sitting on a pannier is dated August the 27 1688 and states: “When yet have sought the City round yet this is still the highest ground.” (Purists point out that Cornhill is actually higher.)

One theory is that the boy is a baker’s boy, with his panyer for deliveries, holding out a loaf of bread, but by far more appropriate for a tavern is that of the 19th century writer, F H Habben, who compiled a dictionary of London street names. He argues: “The lad is probably a kind of abstract juvenile Bacchus, holding a bunch of grapes, signifying the vinous liquor to be found within.”

Whatever he is, the poor boy is hard to find and now holds his panyer out to a busy London intersection; he was presented to the Corporation of London by the Worshipful Company of Vintners and re-erected upon his present site in 1964.

Panyer Boy view
The Panyer Alley Boy’s current view

Pissing alleys, meat markets, and revolting peasants

EAS_3912We ended yesterday’s Moonwalk-themed blog post with a passing reference to Passing (once Pissing) Alley, which is near Smithfield Market, and the subject of the post – Knightrider Street – was a route to Smithfield. Guess where we start today?

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Smithfield Market [Photo: James Ketteringham]
Smithfield played an important, albeit gruesome, part in the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381. Incensed by unjust taxation, peasants from Kent and Essex marched on London, ransacking buildings and beheading the Archbishop of Canterbury on Tower Hill.The revolt ended abruptly when one of the rebel leaders, Wat Tyler, was slashed by the Lord Mayor William Walworth’s sword and stabbed by an esquire of King Richard II at Smithfield.EAS_3909Before Smithfield became a meat market, it was the Smooth field where jousting tournaments were held; knights rode through Giltspur Street (which was originally called Knightrider Street) to reach the tournament.

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The Golden Boy of Pye Corner

According to one of our favourite London historians, John Stow: “Gilt Spurre, or Knightriders’ street of the knights and others riding that way into Smithfield was replenished with buildings on both sides up to Pie Corner.” (Pie, or Pye, Corner marks the spot at the corner of Giltspur Street and Cock Lane where the Great Fire ended, and there is a Golden Boy there to commemorate it.)

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. It is assumed that there were spurriers’ shops in the street at some point, possibly specializing in gilt spurs, or perhaps an enterprising spurrier wanted his shops to be noticeable as the ‘sign of the golden spur’.

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A hanging at Tyburn

Giltspur Street later had a far less glamorous side to it. It was the site of the Giltspur Street Compter (a debtors’ prison), built at the end of the 18th century. When the Wood Street compter was closed in 1791, the prisoners were moved to the Giltspur Street compter, which in turn was demolished in 1855.

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.