Golden rings in London’s 12 days of Christmas street names

Most of the 12 days of Christmas deal with birds, but it’s a bit too soon to do birds again, since that started this whole blog post theme.

Golden SquareLet’s look at the golden rings instead, starting with Golden Square – partly because that’s featured in earlier posts, so is easy for me, and partly because it’s nothing to do with gold. The square stands upon the site of what was known as Gelding’s Cross in the early 17th century when the land was used for farming.

The site was once a plague pit: during the Great Plague there were times when the graveyards could not hold all the dead bodies and victims of the plague were dumped into large pits and communal graves, such as Bunhill Row.

There is also a Golden Lane; it was called Goldynglane and Goldynggeslane in the 14th century, and is probably derived from the name of someone responsible for building it. The Fortune Theatre stood here, a round wooden theatre modelled on the Globe and built in 1600 for Edward Alleyn and Philip Henslow (at a cost of £500). Playwrights represented there included Christopher Marlowe.

The theatre burned down in 1621 and was rebuilt in brick; the Puritans tried to close it down in 1642 but plays continued until the Ordinance of 1647-8, which suppressed playhouses completely. Soldiers dismantled it in 1649 and it was finally demolished in 1661.

Then, of course, we have Goldsmith’s Row and Goldsmith Street, which do take their name from goldsmiths. Goldsmith’s Row and Lombard street was where the goldsmiths plied their trade, but, according to Walter Thornbury in Old and New London, “In 1622 the traders of the Goldsmiths’ Company began to complain that alien traders were creeping into and alloying the special haunts of the trade, Goldsmiths’ Row and Lombard Street; and that 183 foreign goldsmiths were selling counterfeit jewels, engrossing the business and impoverishing its members.”

Piccadilly CircusOk, if you insist, we could try and fit the ‘ring’ bit of the golden rings in: how about Piccadilly Circus and Cambridge Circus? (Circuses were so named because they were circular.)

The former is named from a ruff-type collar, plenty more of which has been covered in earlier posts, and the latter served as the model for ‘The Circus’ in the John Le Carre novels.


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.

All that glisters is definitely not gold in London street names

Yesterday we ended with a quick look at Golden Square, which is more to do with castrated animals than precious metals. So today let’s look at more precious metals and gemstones in London street names. Or not, as the case may be.
There was once a Silver Street in the City of London which did actually have a name that made sense: it was named, says Stow, from the silversmiths who lived there, and earlier forms included ‘Silvernestrate’. Shakespeare took lodgings, around 1602, on the corner of the street. Silver Place in the West End, however, may have been called that because it is close to Golden Square.
There is an Ironmonger Row in Islington, 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. Another hangout for the ironmongers was an Ironmonger Lane (near Cornhill), which was known as ‘Ysmongeres Lane’ around the turn of the 12th century.
From metals to rocks: Emerald Street reflects the ingenuity of some of those people responsible for naming and renaming streets. It was originally called Green Street, presumably either because it was close to a bowling green, or it was after a local resident. Towards the end of the 19th century there were far too many Green Streets in London and so it was given its new name.
Diamond Street in Peckham, is named, so some believe, because it forms one side of a small ‘square’ that could be considered roughly diamond-shaped. There was once another Diamond Street, built in 1890; this was, intriguingly, given its name because the plumber who built it was able to do so because of a diamond. Sad to say, any details of the plumber and his diamond have been lost in the mists of time.
(There is also a Diamond Street in Brent near to a Sapphire Road and Ruby Street; a Ruby Street in Peckham is believed to have been named after Ruby Hahn, the daughter of the area’s one-time landlord.)
Coal can be turned into diamonds and in one case gravel was turned into a garnet. Garnet Street in Wapping was upgraded into the gemstone category in 1938. The street was originally New Gravel Lane and the present Wapping Street was Old Gravel Lane. They were so called because they were part of the routes for carrying sand and gravel inland from the riverside – also taken to sea as ballast.
There is still a Gravel Lane near Houndsditch; this, 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 to be registered in a name.
Finally, in contrast to all these shiny metals and stones, there is Rust Square in Camberwell. That is nothing to do with oxidized metal. It is, supposedly, named for George Rust, the Bishop of Dromore, though it is not clear what his connection with the area was, Dromore being a town in Northern Ireland.

Some other stones and metals represented in London street names include Agate Road, Amethyst Road, Bronze Street, Copper Close, Coral Street, Crystal Terrace, Flint Street, Glass Street, Granite Street, and Opal Street.


Not what they seem: London’s gross street names

Pudding LaneMoving on from the scatological, today is the turn of some of the names that aren’t what they seem. And what they are can sometimes be a bit yukky.

Take, for instance, Pudding Lane, which was where the Great Fire of 1666 started. Given that the fire started in a baker’s house (the king’s baker), pudding sounds like something you’d find at a baker, right? Wrong. The lane, once part of the meat centre of London, earlier had the name of Red Rose Lane, but it was on the route where the ‘puddings’ – parcels of offal – were transported to be thrown into the river.

Seething Lane signAlong those lines is Seething Lane, which is nothing to do with anger. There are other theories as to the derivation of the name, but the one that suits today’s theme is that the area was once said to be a centre for making soap and glue; this involved the boiling of animal skins and the smelly, steaming cauldrons gave rise to the name of Seething. Samuel Pepys lived here and was awoken one night by his maid who told him of the great fire that was raging to the west.

Like Pudding Lane, the derivation of Bunhill Row’s name is not as appetizing as it might first appear. It comes from the nearby fields of the same name (Bunhill Fields, where Daniel Defoe was buried), 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.However, 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, presumably including bones.

Huggin HillLess disgusting, but still not what people might think (and probably an equal contender for the Animal London names), is Huggin Hill, a popular sign for cuddling couples looking for a photo opportunity. It is, however, nothing to do with cuddling or hugging. It was Hoggenlane in the 14th century, probably from the old English ‘hoggene’ – a lane where hogs were kept.

Along the same lines, and also a contender for Animal London, is Swain’s Lane in Highgate, which is, alas, nothing to do with gallant pastoral gentlemen. In the 15th century it was known as ‘Swayneslane’ but later forms of the name show bluntly its derivation: for a long time it was more commonly known as Swine Lane.

Golden Square, which works for London’s gemstones and precious metals street names category, yet to come in this blog, is also nothing to do with what the name suggests. The site upon which the square stands was known as Gelding’s Cross in the early 17th century when the land was used for farming. (Like Bunhill Fields, the square was also a plague burial pit).

A king, the plague, and Dickens

This day in London history: on the 10th of November 1683 George II, king of England from 1727 to 1760, was born. In Golden Square there is a statue of him decked out in a Roman toga.

Golden Sq statue3
Golden Square with George II in his toga

The site upon which Golden Square stands was known as Gelding’s Cross in the early 17th century when the land was used for farming. Building work on the square was begun in the 1670s and, as it was designed for the gentry, a rather more refined name was needed.

During the Great Plague of 1665/6, the site played an important, albeit somewhat gruesome, role.

Originally dogs and cats were blamed for spreading the plague. They were therefore killed off, leaving the real villains – grey rats – without any predators. The rats were thus able to wreak even more havoc with the disease, and it is estimated that around 15% of London’s population died of bubonic plague. At times the graveyards could not hold all the dead bodies and victims of the plague were dumped into large pits and communal graves. Golden Square stands on the site of one such pit.

Famous residents of the square include Thomas Jefferson; surgeon John Hunter, considered to be the founder of scientific surgery; Sebastian de Carvalho, Portuguese statesman and ambassador; and Nicholas Nickleby’s rich but unpleasant uncle, Ralph Nickleby.

Photograph: Fin Fahey