Halloween and London’s spooky streets

How can I resist the opportunity to look at a couple of London’s ghostly streets on Halloween?

Let’s start with Cock Lane, which probably takes its name from having been a breeding ground for cocks – cock fighting having been a highly popular sport in the 17th and 18th centuries.

The lane was the scene, in 1762, of one of the great faked supernatural manifestations, now known as the Cock Lane ghost and used generically for ghost stories with no basis in fact.

A man called Parsons owned a house in Cock Lane and took in lodgers; among these lodgers was a couple, William Kent and his sister-in-law Fanny, whose sister Elizabeth had died in childbirth. Fanny had moved in with Kent to look after the child (who also died soon after), and the two began a relationship. Fanny became pregnant and later died, apparently of smallpox.

Parsons’ 11-year-old daughter began to talk of knocking and scratching noises and visitations from a beautiful lady who spoke to her of having been murdered. Various learned men of the day, including Dr Johnson, visited the Parsons household to investigate the phenomenon of ‘Scratching Fanny’ – so named because of the noises that the ghost supposedly made.

Eventually someone  discovered that the noises were made by the Parsons girl who had a board hidden under her bed. Parsons was accused of putting her up to the trickery, in the hopes of blackmailing Kent, and was pilloried.

In addition to the ghost, another of the lane’s claims to fame was that the Great Fire of London finally halted at the intersection of Cock Lane and Giltspur Street.

Garlick Hill, which was named for the hythe, or wharf, where shipments of garlic were landed on the Thames, also had a ghost. The parish church of St James Garlickhythe was built in 1326, later destroyed in the Great Fire and then rebuilt by Wren. In 1839, when workmen were closing up the old vaults, a perfectly mummified corpse was discovered, and was given the name of Jimmy Garlick.

Jimmy was somewhat unceremoniously relegated to a small closet until his coffin was jolted by a bomb during the Second World War and he was put on display in a glass-fronted coffin. During this time his spirit wandered the church, frightening locals and tourists alike.

Eventually Jimmy’s body was shown the respect it deserved; he was rehoused to a non-viewable coffin away from the public gaze and he ceased his practice of appearing to unwary visitors.


A quote not to be remembered for making…

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.

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

Pudding Lane: fire and culinary London streets

FIsh Street Hill EC3“By and by Jane comes and tells me that she hears that above 300 houses have been burned down tonight by the fire we saw, and that it was now burning down all Fishstreet by London Bridge.” So wrote Samuel Pepys on 2 September 1666, following the start of the Great Fire of London in the early hours of that morning.The fire started in the house of the king’s baker, in Pudding Lane, which we have looked at in a recent post on the grosser names of London’s streets. It does lead to another category – that of culinary London, with comestibles and potables from seafood in Albacore Cresent to herbs in Yarrow Cresent by way of Milk Street.

Old Fish StSurprisingly, when it comes to these culinary names, they are often logical. More logical than so many of London’s street names, in any case. The Fish Street that Pepys writes about was once the main road leading to London Bridge, and was called New Fish Street (as opposed to Old Fish Street, which was demolished in 1870). In the 13th century it became the centre for fishmongers who settled there because of its proximity to the main fish market of Billingsgate; the street was one of the authorized spots for retail fish sales.

Today’s Fish Street Hill leads past the Monument; the reminder for everyone of the Great Fire. It is 202 feet high (202 feet said to be the distance to the spot where the fire broke out).

Monument 2The streets that lead off of Cheapside also say exactly what they were. Cheapside was an early shopping street: it was one of the busiest thoroughfares in London and the city’s main food market. The name comes from the Anglo-Saxon ‘ceap’, to buy or barter and it was originally known as West Cheap to distinguish it from Eastcheap. The medieval grocery shopper would have gone there for staples such as bread, milk, honey, poultry, and fish, and the streets that lead off Cheapside were named for their specialities.

Edward I decreed in 1302 that bakers could sell bread only from Bread Street. Before that, the “leprous women of St James’s” were allowed a tenement here in 1204; part of the street was later destroyed by fire in 1263. The street also became famous (or infamous) for its prison, or compter. The warden was so harsh on his prisoners that he was sent to Newgate Prison. The poet John Milton was born in this street and one entrance of the famous Mermaid Tavern led onto Bread Street while the other was on Friday Street.

Bread StArtichoke Hill, east of Tower Bridge, has a name that derives from an inn sign; the artichoke was adopted because of its comparative rarity and unusual shape, which lent itself well to signs. Artichokes were introduced in England in the 16th century, during the reign of Henry VIII, and the sign of the artichoke became a symbol for gardeners and was a common one for inns in garden areas.

Camomile StreetIn the 12th and 13th centuries, houses were built no closer than about five metres from the old London Wall and the land along the line of the wall was allowed to grow wild. Two of the wild flowers that grew here were camomile and wormwood, and this is reflected in the two streets of this name that still exist. Wormwood, used to flavour vermouth and absinthe, was said to have gained its name because it grew up in the path followed by the serpent when he was evicted from Paradise.

Saffron Hill was given its name because, among other things, it was grown in the gardens here belonging to John Kirkby, who had been awarded the bishopric of Ely and bequeathed his estate to the see of Ely to be used as a palace. Saffron was the main source of the spice for the City dwellers: apart from its colour, it was useful for disguising meat that may have seen its best.

Continuing the herbs and spices theme, Cinnamon Street is a name that appears at the end of the 17th century and probably comes from the fact that the spice was sold there. It was in this street, at the culinarily appropriately named Pear Tree Inn, that John Williams was staying when blood-stained knife was discovered among his belongings and suspicion fell upon him in relation to the Ratcliff Highway Murders.

Garlick HillGarlick Hill also has a slightly gruesome history, but first the name: yes, indeed, garlic features here. The hill was named for the hythe, or wharf, where shipments of garlic were landed on the Thames. It is not unlikely that enough garlic would have been sold in medieval times to warrant an entire parish being called Garlickhythe and the parish church is St James Garlickhythe. During some building work in the church in 1839, an almost perfectly mummified corpse was discovered, and nicknamed Jimmy Garlick.

Pineapple Christchurch GreyfriarsFinally, Pineapple Court. The fruit was introduced to England in the 17th century; like the artichoke, its shape and novelty made it popular on signs, especially those of confectioners. Christopher Wren was said to be so taken with the shape that he adopted it in the decorations of all his buildings (though many of them resemble acorns more than pineapples).

This is by no means intended to be a comprehensive list of London’s culinary street names; it is more just to give a flavour of how important food was in early London.

However, for a complete list of London’s culinary street names, there is a great website called Streats of London, which identifies 495 London streets and images of 147 street signs. It provides not only a comprehensive list but a great graphic representation of the culinary street names of London and is the work of Mykal Shaw, who cycled 3,000 miles throughout London to photograph the signs.

Billingsgate: fishwives and the Great Fire of London

Billingsgate fish market today (Source: The Fishmongers’ Company)

Today’s look at the gates of the City of London will go off on a slight tangent: thus far (and going forward) the real focus has been on those seven main gates that were posterns in the London Wall fortification. There are, however, other gates – the water gates of the city, one of which is Billingsgate, a name perhaps most closely associated with the fish market. The cries of the vendors gave their name to an expression of vulgar language, as in swearing like a fishwife, particularly a Billingsgate fishwife.

According to John Stow, the market was originally a general market for a number of goods including corn, coal, iron, wine, salt, pottery – and fish, and by the 16th century had become a specialist fish market.

Stow also reported a theory (one to which he did not himself adhere) as to how the name of Billingsgate came about. Geoffrey of Monmouth (who, incidentally, may not actually have been Welsh), the 12th-century historian who wrote extensively about the kings of Britain, said that it came from Belin, a king who reigned about 400 BC.

Billingsgate Ward
Billingsgate Ward in the 17th century

Belin supposedly had the gate built and gave it his name. When he died, he was cremated and his ashes put into a brass vessel that was placed high above the gate. Stow, however (who is not normally such a wet blanket when it comes to interesting name derivations), wrote that “it seemeth to me not to be so ancient, but rather to have taken that name of some later owner of the place, happily named Beling, or Biling, as Somar’s key, Smart’s key, Frosh wharf, and others, thereby took their names of their owners”.

Billingsgate has its own special place in London’s history, as it was where the fire of London started. Until boundaries were changed early in the 21st century, Pudding Lane lay within the ward of Billingsgate. (The wards were systems in medieval London that allowed for smaller units within the city to be self-governing and there are still 25 of them in existence.)

EAS_3904Ward of Candlewick

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?

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.

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’.

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.

Medical women, apothecaries, and Pudding Lane

Elizabeth Blackwell
Elizabeth Blackwell

This day in London’s history: on 3 February 1821 Elizabeth Blackwell was born; she was the first woman to receive a medical degree in the US, and she was the first woman on the UK Medical Register.

In 1874, Blackwell was involved with the London School of Medicine for Women, which opened in 1874. The primary goal was to prepare women for the licensing exam of Apothecaries Hall. The Apothecaries Act of 1815 had granted the society the power to license and regulate medical practitioners throughout England and Wales.

The Worshipful Society of Apothecaries of London was founded in 1617 by James I to prevent unqualified people from making medicine. His Royal Apothecary established the first Apothecaries Hall in Pudding Lane in 1633. (It was destroyed in the Great Fire of London and was rebuilt in Blackfriars Lane in 1786.)

Put aside any notion of cakes or desserts that the name Pudding Lane may bring to mind; the truth is far from appetising. 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. Historian and Londoner John Stow explains it most eloquently:

Pudding Lane“Red Rose lane, of such a sign there, now commonly called Pudding Lane, because the butchers of Eastcheap have their scalding house for hogs there, and their puddings, with other filth of beasts, are voided down that way to their dung boats on the Thames.”

Pudding Lane is most famous for being where the Great Fire of 1666 first broke out, causing the destruction of 13,000 houses and 14 streets – though, amazingly, only 11 deaths.

Technically, there is a tenuous dessert connection with the name: the fire started in the house of a man called Faynor (or Farryner), the king’s baker. The lane was narrow, with pitch-covered wooden houses and led to the riverside warehouses full of oil and combustible materials such as hay, coal, and timber.

Pudding Lane originalIn 2013, six students studying Game Art Design at DeMontfort University in Leicester took part in a new competition called ‘Off the Map’. They established Pudding Lane Productions, took part in the competition, and won with their 3D reproduction of 17th-century London including a view of Pudding Lane as depicted above.

Mother Goose, wild geese, and London Bridge

Charles PerraultThis day in London history: on 12 January 1628 Charles Perrault was born in Paris. Perrault wrote many stories, based on folk tales, which were later rewritten by the Brothers Grimm. Among these were the stories that would become known as Sleeping Beauty, Little Red Riding Hood, Blue Beard, Puss in Boots, and Cinderella.

Mother Goose
Mother Goose frontispiece

These were contained in a book published in 1697 and called ‘Stories or Tales from Times Past, with Morals’; the additional title on the frontispiece was Les Contes de ma Mère l’Oye, or, ‘Tales of Mother Goose’.

Bizarrely, Mother Goose is buried at the church of St Olave Hart Street, and there is a plaque that confirms this fact. Animals play a large part in the naming of London streets, largely from pub names.

St Olave's plaqueThere is a Wild Goose Drive in London’s New Cross, but finding an explanation for the name is, in itself, something of a wild goose chase. Although the term ‘wild goose chase’ now means a fruitless or absurd mission, it originally implied an erratic course. The drive is indeed, not straight, which may have suggested the name.

The expression itself could have either have stemmed from the fact that wild geese are difficult to catch or from an old game, a horseback form of ‘follow the leader’. In this game, two riders and their horses started off together; the rider who established the lead then set the path and the pace, and the other was obliged to follow.

St Olave gave his name to Tooley Street, is a corruption of St Olave’s Street – which is how it was recorded at the end of the 16th century; it then became St Tooley’s Street and later Towles Street. Olaf (995-1030) was king of Norway and later became a saint. He may be the inspiration for the nursery rhyme ‘London Bridge is falling down’.

Samuel Pepys was a regular worshipper at the church; he refers to it in his diary as “our own church’”, a line also commemorated in the church’s plaque. Pepys and his wife Elizabeth are buried in the church.

Seething Lane signSt Olave Hart Street is on the corner of (not surprisingly) Hart Street and Seething Lane. Seething name comes from the corn market that used to be at nearby Fenchurch Street. Chaff would blow across the lane and the word ‘seething’ is a corruption of Old English ‘ceafen’, meaning chaff. One of the earliest names was ‘Shyvethenestrat’ in the 13th century; it then became Sidon Lane and Sything Lane; by the 17th century it was Seething Lane.

There is another, less savoury but – as is so often the case – more interesting theory behind the name. The area was also 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.

Pepys Seething Lane plaqueThere is a plaque in Seething Lane to commemorate the fact that the Navy Office, where Samuel Pepys worked, was located here. Pepys also had a house in the lane; he was living here in 1666 when his maid woke him to tell him of a fire that was raging to the west. That, of course, was the Great Fire of London.