“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.
Cock 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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
We 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 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.Before 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.
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’.
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.
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:
“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.
In 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.
This 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.
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.
There 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.
St 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.
There 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.
This day in London history: 2 January 1818 saw the birth of the Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE). Three young engineers, Henry Robinson Palmer, James Jones, and Joshua Field, kicked off with a meeting in Fleet Street’s Kendal Coffee House. However, it was not until two years later, when Thomas Telford was appointed president, that the institution began to make a name for itself. Telford increased membership and obtained a Royal Charter for the ICE in 1828. He remained president until his death.
Fleet Street has, over the years, been famous for many and varied reasons. For instance, London’s first public lavatory and pillar box were in Fleet Street and the pub, Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese, is a landmark in its own right. There has been a pub on that spot since 1538.
The street itself was named for the Fleet River, which has nothing to do with speed: it comes from an Anglo-Saxon word ‘fleot’ meaning a creek or tidal inlet. Although it still flows, the Fleet is now underground and is used as a sewer – a function that it has performed since 14th-century butchers used it for cleaning out entrails and others took up the habit by dumping refuse into the stream.
Fleet Street was one the heart of the newspaper trade, and the term is still used in that context, though it is a long time since newspaper offices were all headquartered there. The associations go back to Wynken de Worde (and is there a better name for a man who was a printer and publisher?), who worked with William Caxton, popularized the printing press in England, and had an office here in 1500.
There is a plaque, at the Ludgate Circus end of Fleet Street, which commemorates Edgar Wallace, Reporter, born London 1875, died Hollywood 1932: “Founder member of the Company of Newspaper Makers. He knew wealth and poverty yet had walked with kings and kept his bearings. Of his talents he gave lavishly to authorship but to Fleet Street he gave his heart.”
On the shadier side of the Fleet Street associations (though many may feel that journalism is shady enough), the street was once famous for its illegal marriages and for its prison, which dates back to the time of the Norman Conquest, was rebuilt several times, and was finally closed in 1842 and demolished in 1846.
One of Fleet Street’s more colourful (and shady) characters was Mary Frith, otherwise known as Moll Cutpurse, who lived and died in Fleet Street. Born around 1584, she is described by the Newgate Calendar as “A famous Master-Thief and an Ugly, who dressed like a Man, and died in 1663”. She is considered to have been, at least in part, inspiration for Daniel Defoe’s book Moll Flanders. She was also the inspiration for two plays, only one of which survived: The Roaring Girl.
The young Mary, described as, basically, a tomboy, was bored with the traditional girls’ pastimes and occupations: “She could not endure that sedentary life of sewing or stitching; a sampler was as grievous to her as a winding sheet; and on her needle, bodkin and thimble she could not think quietly, wishing them changed into sword and dagger for a bout at cudgels.” She would also fight with boys and as often as not beat them.
Her uncle, unable to restrain this undesirable behaviour, apparently planned to have her trepanned (where a hole is drilled in the skull to relieve pressure on the brain) aboard a ship bound for New England. She jumped ship and swam back to shore. Mary grew into a “lusty and sturdy wench” who often dressed in men’s clothing (though, unlike Phoebe Hessel, she made no attempt to pretend to be a man) and, eventually, “entered herself into the Society of Divers, otherwise called file clyers, cutpurses or pickpockets”.
As Moll Cutpurse the pickpocket, she was successful and made a great deal of money. Eventually, a spell in various prisons, and having her hand burned (a punishment for theft) four times, she took to highway robbery instead. A good Royalist, Moll targeted only followers of Oliver Cromwell. When she grew tired, or nervous about, stealing, Moll turned to a variety of activities, including fencing stolen goods and running a bawdy house or, as the Newgate Calendar puts it succinctly, “To get money, Moll would not stick out to bawd for either men or women; insomuch that her house became a double temple for Priapus and Venus, frequented by votaries of both sorts.”
Moll died of dropsy when she was in her seventies, was interred in St Bridget’s churchyard, and it is believed that John Milton wrote her epitaph, though the headstone was destroyed in the Great Fire of London.