Like a rainbow: London’s colourful streets

Greencoat PlaceI was listening to the Stones’ Like a Rainbow the other day and, of course, that made me wonder about colours in London’s street names. And today is National Poetry Day in the UK, which brings two things together nicely: the poet Robert Browning was born in what is now Rainbow Street in Camberwell.

The street retains the name of the earlier Rainbow Lane that led to the manor house of the Dovedales, called Rainbow House. Part of the estate included Rainbow Cottage, which is where the poet Browning was born.

Greycoat PlThere are not that many colours represented in London streets, however, though the primary colours of light – blue, green, and red – are there. Black, grey and white also feature, along with orange. There are various violet streets and roads, but they perhaps belong more in the flora category.

Black Lion Lane in Hammersmith derives from a pub of that name recorded in the lane in 1668. It is likely to have been a heraldic reference to Philippa of Hainault, queen of Edward III, but black was a relatively common colour for tavern signs.

Blackfriars PassageIt may have become especially popular after the 18th century Gin Act, which was an effort to clamp down on the problem of drunkenness in London. As early as the 12th century, William Fitzstephen (biographer of Thomas Becket, and witness to his murder), was a fan of all that London had to offer, apart from the “immoderate drinking of foolish persons and the frequent fires”.

The drinking would appear to have become no more moderate six centuries later: by then London had close to 7,000 unlicensed ‘dram houses’ and workmen were often given their wages in cheap gin. An act of 1736 imposed phenomenal fines on licences for drinking houses, and many taverns at the time took to adopting ‘black’ in their signs, as well as using black draperies.

Whitehall cropWhite featured heavily in tavern signs as well, and from west London to east London, there is a White Hart Court off Liverpool Street. The court stands on the site of an old White Hart Inn, built in 1480 and destroyed four centuries later to make room for Liverpool Street train station.

The white hart was the heraldic symbol of Richard II , who insisted that all members of his household wear this emblem. Innkeepers had a long tradition of looking after their own wellbeing by showing allegiance to the crown and that would have helped make the White Hart a popular sign during this particular king’s reign. In fact, the sign was used so much that White Hart became virtually a generic term for a tavern.

Laurence Pountney Hill 2 cropStories of white harts date back at least to Aristotle, who said that Diomedes consecrated one to Diane, and there are many literary references to white harts. George Fox (1624-1691) died in a friends’s house in this court; there was also a Quaker meeting house, where Fox had preached days before his death. Fox was the founder of Quakerism – the followers of which were first known as ‘Children of the Light’, then ‘Friends of Truth’, or just ‘Friends’. The nickname of the Quakers was first applied to them in 1650 by Justice Gervase Bennet, when Fox faced charges of blasphemy because, Fox said, “I bid them tremble in the presence of the lord”.

Laurence Pountney Hill was once called Green Lettuce Lane but that name was nothing to do with salad leaves. It was, apparently, a corruption of Green Lattice Lane and 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.

Towards the end of the 19th century there so many Green Streets in London that one was ingeniously renamed Emerald Street.

Red Anchor Close in Chelsea takes its name comes from the Chelsea Pottery, formed around 1740, which used the mark of a red anchor. (There is also Red Lion Square, with its connections to Joshua Hanway, Nicholas Barbon, and the ghost of Olive Cromwell.)

No relation to Red Anchor Close is Blue Anchor Yard near Tower Hill; blue was common in signs generally, often just to mark the colour of a place of business’s doors or doorpost. The colour was considered to be a symbol of trustworthiness, and the anchor is also representative of hope in Christian symbolism, as in the Hope and Anchor, another common pub sign.

Greycoat Place in Westminster takes its name from the Grey Coat Hospital, a school founded in 1698 for the poor children of the area. The school moved to Greycoat Place in 1701. There is also a Greystoke Place near Holbon; this bears no relation to Tarzan – it was named after a property owner called Greystock.

Distillery Lane, a drunken heart, and adultery

Caroline prior to her ill-fated marriage

This day in London’s history: on 17 May 1768 Caroline Amelia Elizabeth of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel, known as Caroline of Brunswick, wife of the future King George IV, was born.

It was a marriage not made in heaven; of the wedding night consummation of their marriage, George wrote, “it required no small [effort] to conquer my aversion and overcome the disgust of her person”. She, on the other hand, said that he was so drunk that he “passed the greatest part of his bridal night under the grate, where he fell, and where I left him”.

George was later to attempt to divorce Caroline and strip her of her title of Queen consort on the grounds of adultery; while all this was going on she stayed at Brandenburgh House in Fulham. She was popular with the masses, however, and that effort failed.

However, George did succeed in barring her from his coronation service at Westminster Abbey when her attempt to gain entry lost her soon of the popularity she had enjoyed. She died soon after at Brandenburg House, which was then demolished, presumably, says one source, by the king in a fit of pique at her popularity.

All of which brings us to Distillery Lane, which takes its name from the H&J Haig Distillery, built in 1857 on the site of Brandenburgh House, giving its name to Distillery Lane, which led to it, and to Distillery Road close by.

The other famous resident of Brandenburgh House and, indeed, the person for whom it was built, was Sir Nicholas Crisp, who was so loyal to his monarch, Charles I, that he had a bust of the king established in the Hammersmith parish church of St Paul’s.

He also directed that, following his death, his heart be placed in an urn under the effigy of his king. The heart was to be refreshed annually with a glass of wine; this service was performed for around a century until the heart became too much decayed.

The name of this loyal subject lives on in the nearby Crisp Road, which has other grisly connections.

Crisp Road and its grisly connections

Oliver Cromwell

This day in London’s history: on 30 January 1649 Charles I was beheaded, following the Rump Parliament declaring him guilty of treason. On 30 January 1661 Oliver Cromwell, the man behind the the Rump Parliament and the execution, was ceremonially executed himself. He had, however, been dead for over two years. Still, he proved to be tough even in death; during the mock execution, it took several blows to sever his head.

There were rumours that Cromwell’s ghost haunted the area of Red Lion Square, supposedly the hiding place for his body the night before his posthumous decapitation. In any event, his head remained on a spike above Westminster Hall for nearly 25 years, until a storm broke the spike and hurled Cromwell’s head to the ground. It was then bandied about amongst collectors of such grisly items, and finally buried at Sidney Sussex College in Cambridge.

On the other side of the Charles I coin, but also somewhat grisly, is the story of one of his biggest fans and supporters, Sir Nicholas Crisp (or Crispe). Crisp, who gives his name to Crisp Road in Hammersmith, was apparently a remarkable man; Samuel Johnson said of him that he was “a man of loyalty that deserves perpetual remembrance”.

Crisp was a native of Hammersmith in West London, and a dedicated Royalist: he spent over £100,000 in the cause of Charles I. He managed to escape too dire a fate at the hands of Cromwell, but was severely fined for the mere fact of his existence.

Brandenburgh House
Brandenburgh House

Crisp built Grand House, later known as Brandenburgh House (later the home of Caroline of Brunswick, consort of George IV). He also paid for the east window in St Mildred’s church in Bread Street (the church was destroyed during the Second World War). The window was divided into five parts, depicting the Spanish Armada, the Gunpowder Plot, Elizabeth I, the 1625 plague and the Crisp family with their coat of arms.

Another of the Crisp memorials for his king was a bust of Charles I in the Hammersmith parish church of St Paul’s; the bust sits atop a black and white marble column and is marked by an inscription which reads: “This effigy was erected by the special appointment of Sir Nicholas Crispe, Knight and Baronet, in a grateful commemoration of that glorious martyr, King Charles the First, of blessed memory.”

Not being content with this token of loyalty, Crisp also directed that his heart be placed in an urn under the effigy of his king. The heart was to be refreshed annually with a glass of wine; this service was performed for around a century until the heart became too much decayed.

And what then? Let us hope that a century of wine provided enough alcohol for the spirit of Sir Nicholas.