Green Dragon Court: myths, Lewis Carroll, and hangmen’s perks in London’s street names

I missed a trick in the recent post on myth and legend; the unicorn, as well as being a mythical creature, features in the full royal coat of arms of the United Kingdom. 

But first, as one who claims to like knowing the whole story, I omitted to say why the unicorn was particularly popular with chemists (and apothecaries) when it came to signage. A unicorn’s horn was supposed to be a method of detecting poison: either when dipped in poison or because they were believed to sweat in the presence of poison.

Back to the royal coat of arms of the United Kingdom, which features a unicorn and a lion. The unicorn stands for Scotland and the lion represents England; a combination dating back to 1603 when James VI of Scotland also became of James I of England.

This supposedly accounts for the animosity between the unicorn and the lion. There are various literary references to this animosity but perhaps the best known is the old nursery rhyme that in Lewis Carroll quotes in Through the Looking Glass:

The Lion and the Unicorn were fighting for the crown:
The Lion beat the Unicorn all round the town.
Some gave them white bread, some gave them brown;
Some gave them plum-cake and drummed them out of town.

Another trick I missed was that the dragon – the national symbol of Wales – also features in London street names. Sort of: the red dragon symbolises Wales but I can’t find any red dragon streets in London.

There is a Green Dragon Court near Borough Market and that takes its name from a tavern sign: there was a Green Dragon tavern here as early as 1542. There was also a Green Dragon in Fleet Street where hangmen would go there on execution days to sell used ropes at sixpence an inch.

The clothes of those who were executed also became the property of the hangman – perk of the job – and in 1447, according to that wonderful source, The London Encyclopaedia, in 1447 five men had been hanged, cut down while still alive, stripped and marked out for quartering when their pardon arrived. The hangman refused to return their clothes and they had to walk home naked.

London’s green streets and hiking for Macmillan

I’ve signed up for the Wye Valley Mighty Hike – a 26-mile hike in aid of Macmillan Cancer Support – which I will be undertaking in memory of my cousin Pat who lost a short but brave battle with pancreatic cancer. My welcome pack arrived recently and the training shirt is a very bright green, so in honour of Macmillan and my cousin, I thought I would have a green-themed post.

Let’s start with Bowling Green Lane near Farringdon. I used to work near there, and this is one of the streets, along with Bleeding Heart Yard, that started me on my quest of finding out more about weird and wonderful street names. The lane was so called because in the 17th century there were two bowling greens here, the last of which was closed in the 19th century. John Stow disapproved of bowling – he thought it distracted archers from their proper pastime.

Less than a mile away we have Emerald Street, which reflects the ingenuity of some of those responsible for naming and renaming streets. It was originally called Green Street, possibly 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 a name that allowed it to take its place in the rank of precious stone streets, such as Diamond Street and Ruby Street. But precious stones are for another time.

Also in that general area is Greenhills Rents. Back in the day, many lanes and alleyways were built either by one person or with one person’s money, and given the name of ‘buildings’ or ‘rents’. The latter, unsurprisingly, were buildings built specifically to be rented out. John Greenhill was an 18th-century landowner; he and his wife Agnes owned, among other land and property, the Castle tavern on Cowcross Street. In 1736 John applied unsuccessfully for a market to be built on his land; the last of his property was sold by Edith Minnie Greenhill in 1920.

Green Dragon Court, near Southwark Cathedral, is named – like so many streets – from a pub; there was a tavern here as early as 1542. 

It may seem like cheating to include Laurence Pountney Hill, but it was once called Green Lettuce Lane. The name is nothing to do with salad; it is, apparently, a corruption of Green Lattice Lane and, some say, comes from a lattice gate that opened into what is now Cannon Street. 

A much jollier explanation is that, although lattice in its corrupted form does play a part, it was not a gate. In earlier days taverns were designed so that customers could see out without being observed by people going past. This was sometimes achieved with latticework over the window, traditionally painted green or red.

Green Man Lane in West Ealing comes from another common tavern sign, a reference to an ancient figure in folk customs: Jack-in-the-Green. He was originally part of the traditional May procession, and represented one aspect of the summer. The Jack was a man enclosed within a wicker cage, which was covered by green leaves and boughs. (Who can think of that without remembering The Wicker Man with Edward Woodward and Christopher Lee?)

Later on, Jack-in-the-Green became associated with chimney sweeps, who were traditionally supposed to be carriers of good luck, and during their May Day celebrations, the street procession would include a boy dressed in the wicker costume.

There is a Greencoat Place, which takes its name from the Green Coat School. In 1624 the Churchwardens of St. Margaret’s, Westminster, established St. Margaret’s Hospital to which Charles I granted a Charter of Incorporation in 1633. As the children of St. Margaret’s were dressed in green, the Hospital became known as The Green Coat School.

But back to Macmillan and my hike: if you would like to sponsor me for this walk, click for my fundraising page.