In honour of International Women’s Day: from Fanny Burney to Phillis Wheatley

As it is International Women’s Day today, I’d thought I revisit briefly some of the women who have appeared in this blog by virtue of a connection, however tenuous, with London and its street names.

Let’s start with Phillis Wheatley, who was the first published African-American female poet. Born in West Africa and taken to the US in 1761, she was bought by a wealthy Boston merchant and tailor John Wheatley (and given his name as was the custom of the time). Phillis was schooled by Wheatley’s daughter Mary and accompanied his son Nathaniel to London, where she had an audience with the Lord Mayor of London and met with other significant members of British society.

The Boston publishers of the 18th century did not want to be associated with a book written by a slave so her work Various Subjects, Religious and Moral was published by a company based in Aldgate.

Margaret Cavendish (born Margaret Lucas and later the Duchess of Newcastle), who was born in 1623, was a poet, philosopher, essayist, and playwright who had her works published under her own name, unusual for women of the time. She wrote The Blazing World, one of the earliest examples of science fiction, she was an early opponent of animal testing, and she argued philosophy and science with the great minds of the time.

One of Margaret’s brothers, John Lucas, was an original member of the Royal Society and, in 1667, Margaret asked permission to attend a session of the  Society. This request caused a great deal of argument and dissatisfaction, but was eventually granted, and she became the first woman to attend a session. (The Royal Society, which was once based in Crane Court, was founded in 1660, but women were not permitted by statute to become fellows until 1945.)

Fanny Burney, later Madame D’Arblay, was an extraordinary woman; she was a talented and gifted – and largely self-taught – 18th century writer, but she should also go down in history as a woman of huge courage. Fanny was a breast cancer survivor and wrote the earliest known patient’s perspective of a mastectomy – in her case, performed without anaesthetic.

Fanny married Alexandre-Jean-Baptiste Piochard D’Arblay on 28 July 1793, relatively late in life. Her father did not attend the wedding, having expressed disapproval of his daughter marrying a penniless foreigner. The couple remained happily married and had one son.

There is memorial window to her at Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey, and London’s oldest surviving plaque for a woman was erected in 1885 at her residence in Mayfair’s Bolton Street. According to English Heritage, “It is a sign of the times in which it was made that its inscription gives greater prominence to her married name – Madame D’Arblay – than to the one by which posterity knows her.” There is also a D’Arblay Street, and Fanny lived in Half Moon Street.

Lola Montez, universally described as an adventuress, also lived in Half Moon Street, where she was arrested for bigamy in 1849. Lola was born Marie Dolores Eliza Rosanna Gilbert in Limerick, Ireland. She later claimed to be Spanish, adopted the name Lola Montez, and became a dancer whose dancing apparently involved more enthusiasm than talent. Her most renowned dance was the Tarantula, in which she searched for an imaginary spider in her clothes.

Lola is perhaps better known for her lovers, among the more famous of whom was Ludwig, King of Bavaria, who was dominated by the strong-willed Lola and became a strong political force. Her meddling in politics sparked off riots that eventually led to her banishment and the king’s abdication. Another famous lover was the equally temperamental Franz Liszt.

Mary Frith, otherwise known as Moll Cutpurse, was born around 1584 and lived and died in Fleet Street. She was 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.

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. When she grew tired of, or nervous about, stealing, Moll turned to a variety of activities, including fencing stolen goods and running a bawdy house.

Mary, or 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.

Phoebe Hessel, who gives her name both to Amazon Street and Hessel Street, is another woman who was famous for dressing as a man; in her case she disguised her gender to enlist as a man in the 5th Regiment of Foot, supposedly to be with her lover, Samuel Golding. She hid her secret successfully even from her comrades-in-arms, that is, until Golding was wounded and invalided home. Phoebe then revealed her secret to the wife of the commanding officer; once her secret was out, she was discharged and returned to the UK where she married Golding and bore nine children.

On Golding’s death, Phoebe moved to Brighton where she married William Hessel and became something of a local character. The then Prince Regent, later George IV, granted Phoebe a small pension and invited her to his coronation parade. She died in 1821, at the alleged age of 108 and was buried in the parish churchyard with honours.

follow her lover into battle, and served overseas as a man, having was later a local character in Brighton, becoming a favourite of George IV, Price Regent and living to the ripe old age of 108.

Lady Elizabeth Hatton provides one of the many, many theories behind the name of Bleeding Heart Yard: she was the basis of a legend about a beautiful gypsy who made a deal with the devil in order to be able to capture the heart of a rich lord. The devil then appeared unexpectedly at a ball one night and carried her off, after which revellers at the ball were revolted to discover a bleeding human heart in the courtyard.

Elizabeth, who died in 1646, was indeed a woman to inspire legends. The young and beautiful (and rich) woman was the toast of 17th-century London society; her Annual Winter Ball in Hatton Garden was one of the highlights of the London social season, and invitations were much sought after. Her suitors were many and varied, including Sir Francis Bacon and Sir Edward Coke.

Coke won Elizabeth’s heart – possibly to his detriment, because the two quarrelled virtually throughout their long marriage. Elizabeth retained the Hatton name and the couple lived in separate houses for much of their marriage. There were indeed rumours of Elizabeth being carried off by the devil – after defying him to do so if she could not open the door to the wine cellar which thwarted the efforts of her servants.

Another real woman to provide a theory behind a London street name (in this case, La Belle Sauvage Yard) is Pocahontas, a Native American who was captured by the English during Anglo-Indian hostilities in 1613, and held for ransom. During her captivity, she converted to Christianity, took the name Rebecca, and chose to remain with the English. In April 1614, she married tobacco planter John Rolfe in what is the first recorded inter-racial marriage in North American history.

The Rolfes travelled to London to seek investment for their tobacco farm, and the couple became celebrities. When the couple set sail to return to Virginia, Pocahontas became ill, died at the age of 21, and was buried in Gravesend.

The printing works of Cassell, Petter and Galpin were based at one point in the yard, and Pocahontas became the symbol for what became today’s publishing company of Cassell’s. There was once a statue of Pocahontas in Red Lion Square, commissioned by the company when it moved there.

London’s space streets: Comet Street to Mercury Way

Half Moon Street 2I heard on the radio that Friday was National Space Day, which is observed annually on the first Friday in May and is dedicated to the extraordinary achievements, benefits and opportunities in the exploration and use of space. How better to commemorate it in my own little way than look for space-related street names?

Comet Street in southeast London and Meteor Street in southwest London are, in fact, nothing to do with astronomical phenomena: they take their names from types of aircraft. According to Wikipedia, the de Havilland DH 106 Comet was the world’s first production commercial jetliner and the Gloster Meteor was the first British jet fighter and the Allies’ only operational jet aircraft during the Second World War.

Half Moon Street has been covered quite a bit in this blog, particularly in light of two of its more notable residents: the admirable and courageous Fanny Burney and the scandalous Lola Montez. The street, which was built in 1730, takes its name from an old ale house that stood at the corner.

Although not quite as common as the sun, the moon is used in many tavern signs. The half moon could be representative of the Virgin Mary: a crescent moon is sometimes shown under her feet in pictures of the Assumption.

Man in Moon PassageMan in Moon Passage is yet another of those wonderful London street names that probably derives from an inn sign. People all over the world have been looking at the man in the moon for a very long time, and on the inn signs he is often depicted with a bundle of sticks, a lantern, and a dog.

Seven Sisters Road in Finsbury Square takes its name from a tavern called the Seven Sisters. The tavern, in turn, commemorated the fact that a circle of trees with a walnut tree in the centre once stood in front of it. The trees, removed in the 1840s, were supposed to have dated back to around the 14th century, planted on the spot where a martyr had been burned.

Or, according to Hector Bolitho and Derek Peel in Without the City Walls, “It is a pity that we have no more than the misty legend, of a merchant in the late 17th or early 18th century who planted seven elms on Page Green, one for each of his seven daughters.”

Space connection: ‘Seven Sisters’ refers to many things, most notably a star cluster called the Pleiades. These were named after the seven daughters of the titan Atlas and the sea-nymph Pleione.

EAS_4122Sun Street Passage, alongside Liverpool Street Station, marks the location of a Sun Street that took its name from a tavern recorded as early as 1650 and was obliterated by the station. There is now a Sun Street nearby off Finsbury Park. Sun Court near Cornhill also takes its name from a tavern.

There are various Star streets, yards and alleys; Star Yard near Chancery Lane takes its name, according to Gillian Bobbington in Street Names of London, from a Starre tavern that was mentioned “in the earliest surviving Licensed Victuallers records”.

There is also a Mercury Way in southeast London, though I can’t find either the derivation of that name, or any other planets that are commemorated in street names.

Half Moon Street and 18th-century breast cancer survivor Fanny Burney

Half Moon Street 2This afternoon I’ll be setting off to take part in the Moonwalk London 2014, a 26.2 mile power walk in aid of Walk the Walk, a breast cancer charity trust. What better time to commemorate Fanny Burney, an 18th-century writer and breast cancer survivor, as well as mention Half Moon Street, where she once lived?

The street, which was built in 1730, takes its name from an old ale house that stood at the corner. Although not quite as common as the sun, the moon is used in many tavern signs. The half moon could be representative of the Virgin Mary: a crescent moon is sometimes shown under her feet in pictures of the Assumption.

Fanny Burney
Fanny Burney

There are many fictional residents of Half Moon Street, and other literary figures associated with the street, but for now we will focus on Fanny Burney, also known as Madame D’Arblay, who lived there for a time.

Frances (Fanny) Burney, born in 1752, was a talented and gifted – and largely self-taught – writer, but she should also go down in history as a woman of huge courage, having written the earliest known patient’s perspective of a mastectomy – in her case, performed without anaesthetic.

In this harrowing description, penned several months after the operation and taking her three months to write it as she relived the agony, she wrote:

“Yet — when the dreadful steel was plunged into the breast – cutting through veins – arteries – flesh – nerves – I needed no injunctions not to restrain my cries. I began a scream that lasted unintermittingly during the whole time of the incision – & I almost marvel that it rings not in my Ears still? so excruciating was the agony.”

The pain, she told her sister, continued after the cut had been made, when the delicate area became exposed to air; the ordeal was by no means over at that point as the surgeon needed yet to “separate the bottom, the foundation of this dreadful gland from the parts to which it adhered”, at which point, “I then felt the knife (rack)ling against the breast bone – scraping it!”

This is a small portion of the letter, not for the faint-hearted, in which she also urges Esther and her daughters not to wait as long as she had with any similar health concerns, can be read in its entirety here. Ironically, Fanny outlived most of her family, including her husband, son, sister, and one of her nieces.

Fanny, whose grave demeanour earned her the family nickname of ‘the Old Lady’ when she was about eleven, was small, slender, and short-sighted. She was educated at home, but was teased by her brother because, at the age of eight, she did not know her letters.

A quick learner, Fanny became an avid reader and writer; she wrote a novel (The History of Caroline Evelyn)when she was ten, but possibly burned that and other writings when she was fifteen and trying to “to combat this writing passion”.

The family had moved to London when Fanny was about six, and lived in Poland Street where her father, who was closely acquainted with Samuel Johnson and David Garrick, worked as a music teacher. When Fanny was twelve, her sisters went with their father to France; it was feared that Fanny, who was close to her French, and Catholic grandmother, might succumb to Catholicism. Undeterred, Fanny taught herself French.

She began a diary, the first entry of which is dated 27 March 1768, and experimented with different literary styles. Under a cloak of extreme secrecy she later began writing her first novel, Evelina, apparently composed in part of “disjointed scraps and fragments” she had assembled in 1772, as a sequel to The History of Caroline Evelyn. She wrote the manuscript in a disguised hand, and approached a publisher under the name of Mr King.

Following an unsuccessful first attempt, Fanny, along with her siblings and a cousin who had been taken into her confidence, approached the Fleet Street bookseller Thomas Lowndes, who agreed to publish the book. The book became popular, though it was some time before even her father learned the identity of the author. Samuel Johnson was a great admirer of the book, saying that it was better than the efforts of both Henry Fielding and Samuel Richardson.

In her lifetime Fanny did enjoy commercial success: her book Camilla, or, A Picture of Youth, sold out all 4,000 copies within a few months of publication.

Fanny Burney windowFanny married Alexandre-Jean-Baptiste Piochard D’Arblay on 28 July 1793, relatively late in life. Her father did not attend the wedding, having expressed disapproval of his daughter marrying a penniless foreigner. The couple remained happily married and had one son.

There is memorial window to her at Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey.

If you want to sponsor me on the Moonwalk London 2014, my fundraising page is here.

Lola Montez and Half Moon Street

Lola Montez, the Spanish look
Portrait of Lola painted for Ludwig I of Bavaria

This day in London history: on 17 January 1861 Lola Montez, universally described as an adventuress, died. She was born in Ireland, died in New York, and was arrested for bigamy in London’s Half Moon Street.

The street, which was built in 1730, takes its name from an old ale house that stood at the corner. Although not quite as common as the sun, the moon is used in many tavern signs. The half moon could be representative of the Virgin Mary: a crescent moon is sometimes shown under her feet in pictures of the Assumption.

Real residents of Half Moon Street (which was, at one time, less than respectable) included James Boswell, Fanny Burney, Henry James, William Hazlitt, and Somerset Maugham who said in 1930 that the street was “sedate and respectable”.

Branson and Aldrin with Half Moon Street sign
Buzz Aldrin and Richard Branson with a replica of the Half Moon Street sign

Richard Branson also has a connection with Half Moon Street; according to his website, “Speaking of fitting names, Virgin Galactic’s address in London was No.6 Half Moon Street…We named the road which leads up to Spaceport America Half Moon Street too.”

There were also various fictional residents of the street, including Bulldog Drummond, a gentleman adventurer; Algernon Moncreiff from Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest; and PG Wodehouse’s Bertie Wooster, who had a flat there where he was looked after by the unflappable Jeeves. In the erotic thriller Half Moon Street, Sigourney Weaver’s character lives in Half Moon Street.

And, of course, the very real but incredible Lola Montez, of whom Three Musketeers author Alexandre Dumas said, “She is fatal to any man who dares to love her.”

Lola, said to be the inspiration for the song ‘What Lola Wants, Lola Gets’ (as featured in the musical Damn Yankees), was born Marie Dolores Eliza Rosanna Gilbert in Limerick, Ireland. She later claimed to be Spanish, adopted the name Lola Montez, and became famous for her love affairs and her dancing, which involved more enthusiasm than talent. Her most renowned dance was the Tarantula, in which she searched for an imaginary spider in her clothes.

The black-haired, blue-eyed beauty was first married at the age of 19 when she eloped with Captain Thomas James in order to avoid the marriage, to a 60-year-old judge, which her mother had arranged. James abandoned her for another woman and later took out a judicial separation on the grounds of Lola’s adultery. She trained as a dancer in Spain, but an attempt to start a stage career in London as Lola Montez failed when she was recognized as James’s wife and hissed off the stage.

Over the course of her lifetime, Lola travelled extensively in Europe,, collecting famous and powerful lovers along the way. These lovers included Ludwig, King of Bavaria, who was dominated by the strong-willed Lola and became a strong political force. Her meddling in politics sparked off riots that eventually led to her banishment and the king’s abdication.

Another famous lover was the equally temperamental Franz Liszt; that affair is supposed to have ended when he sneaked out of the apartment as she slept and locked the door behind him. He had the foresight to pay for damages on his way out, which was just as well: when Lola awoke she was enraged and smashed everything she could. (If you prefer truth over drama, it seems that they parted amicably after a very short liaison.)

In 1849 Lola married George Heald, who was only just of age; his concerned relatives did a little research and discovered that her judicial separation prevented her (or James) from remarrying. It was in Half Moon Street that she was arrested for bigamy. The besotted Heald paid her bail and they fled the country.

Lola eventually abandoned Heald and their two sons, and began her travels in Australia and the Americas, ending her days in New York. She gave up the stage in favour of the lecture circuit, speaking on topics such as ‘Gallantry’, ‘Fashion’, and ‘Heroines and strong-minded women of history’, in which she scorned the feminist movement in favour of individual self-assertion.

Depending on who you believe, she died either unrepentant or remorseful, and either of a stroke, pneumonia, or syphilis. In any event, she was buried in Greenwood cemetery, Brooklyn, as Mrs Eliza Gilbert, having packed a lot of living into 40 years of life (she was born on 17 February 1821 and her gravestone mistakenly put her age at 42).

There was once a Half Moon Court, demolished in 1879, and also named after a tavern, which was popular with the acting fraternity of the 16th century. Shakespeare is said to have lived there.