“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.
Surprisingly, 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).
The 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.
Artichoke 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.
In 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 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.
Finally, 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.