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.