Jane Austen, Oliver Cromwell, and a notorious pickpocket

16 December in London’s history: Jane Austen was born on this day in 1775. One of the most widely-read authors in English history, Austen spent her early life in Hampshire, moving to Bath and later Southampton with her family.

Austen did, however, visit London on occasion to visit her brother Henry, who was also her literary agent. One of the places she would have stayed was Henry’s residence in Hans Place, Knightsbridge. Hans Place was named after Hans Sloane, who founded the British Museum and also brought cocoa to England.

Also on this day in London’s history, Oliver Cromwell was appointed as appointed as Lord Protector of England, Scotland and Ireland. There are many London associations with Cromwell, including Whitehall and Long Acre, where he lived; Cripplegate, where he was married; Tyburn, where his body underwent a mock execution on the 12th anniversary of the beheading of Charles I; and Red Lion Square, where his remains were reputed have been interred briefly before that mock execution.

Other Cromwell connections include Horseferry Road, where he is supposed to have taken the ferry; and Fleet Street, where the pickpocket Moll Cutpurse targeted Cromwell supporters.

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When is a street not a street?

Cardinal CapWhen it’s an alley, or an avenue, or a close, or a lane, or a passage… streets today may be named in a more arbitrary manner, but there was a time when there was a logic to whether a street in London was a street or an alley, or whatever.

EAS_3883That logic hinged around width: for instance, a lane had only to be wide enough for two men to roll a barrel along it, giving the name to hence Fyefoot (Five Foot) Lane. A street, however, in Roman times, was a paved way – or ‘via strata’, which meant that it led somewhere specific.

Garlick HillThat changed over the years and Henry I decreed that streets not only had to be paved but also should be wide enough for sixteen knights to ride abreast. (Whether or not Knightrider Street, or even Giltspur Street, once had room for that many knights is a question that can’t be answered here.) Streets eventually no longer had to lead anywhere other than to the buildings along them.

AMincing Lane cropn avenue also led somewhere: it was once a tree-lined approach to a grand house or landmark. There is an Electric Avenue in Brixton but, just to be awkward, it didn’t actually fit the definition of an avenue: it was opened as a 19th-century late-night shopping street, complete with electric lighting that was designed to be adequate for evening shoppers: “lined with shops, with a lavish display of electric light everywhere”.

Horseferry RoadRoads were routes, originally for horses, from a word meaning ‘to ride’ and generally led from one place to another. Combining routes and horses is Horseferry Road in the City of Westminster. It takes its name from a horse ferry, supposedly older than London Bridge, and the only one of its kind allowed in London. Alleys and passages were also routes to and from somewhere, and other descriptives are from the shape, as in crescent, circle, circus, and square.

EAS_4029The mews, now generally indicative of an upmarket London address, was originally where birds used in falconry were kept; the word ‘mews’ comes from the birds’ loss of feathers – ‘mewing’ or ‘moulting’. Later, when falconry lost popularity, the mews were converted to stables for the royal horses. Eventually, parking being a long-standing problem in London, rows of coach houses were built behind the grand residences and called mews after the royal stables.

New Scotland YardThere is an Early Mews in Camden (though, unfortunately, there is no Late Mews to balance it out). In fact, tardiness (or not) has nothing to do with this name: it comes from the Early family. Joseph and George, plumbers, and John, a builder, built the mews as well as much of the early 19th-century development that was carried on around Camden High Street.

Most others are fairly self-evident, such as corner, place, row, terrace, and so on, and here is an exhausting, if not exhaustive, list of the different types of thoroughfare in London: alley, arcade, avenue, buildings, circle, circus, close, court, crescent, dock, drive, fields, gardens, green, grove, hill, lane, mews, park, passage, place, rents, rise, row, square, street, terrace, vale, walk, way, wharf, yard. Some, not listed here, are weird and wonderful sounding, and for another time.

Horses, ferries, and cartographers

Horseferry RoadHere’s a new theme for the blog posts, at least until the 11th of May: places on or near the London Moonwalk 2014 route. I am taking part in this year’s Moonwalk, a 26.2 mile walk in aid of breast cancer charities, so it seemed a good idea to look at street names along the route. The route has not been released in its entirety, so the choice of streets is arbitrary and may not reflect what is actually on the route.

Let’s start with Horseferry Road, which leads into Lambeth Bridge.

The road takes its name from a horse ferry, supposedly older than London Bridge (the earliest known reference goes back to 1513, but there may have been a ford near the site in Roman times), and the only one of its kind allowed in London. At one time communication between the north and south banks of the Thames was not easy, especially without bridges, and for a long time this ferry was the only means, between Westminster and the City of London, of crossing the river.

The horse ferry was supposed to have been established when St Peter was taken across to consecrate Westminster Abbey (properly titled the Collegiate Church of St Peter at Westminster); while this is certainly a legend it makes a good story, and there was probably a monastery there as early as the 8th century.

Another story about the ferry is that once, when Oliver Cromwell was being taken across the river, his coach sank in mid-stream. Other notable people associated with the ferry are James II, who allegedly started his escape from England at the ferry pier, and Princess Augusta, later the mother of George III, who crossed the Thames via the horse ferry on the way to her wedding.

HorseferryThe ferry was made virtually redundant by the opening of Westminster Bridge in 1750, but remained in use until Lambeth Bridge opened in 1862. At one time the City of Westminster Magistrates’ Court was located at number 70, and was called Horseferry Road Magistrates. Today, the Channel 4 corporate headquarters building is located at 124 Horseferry Road.

Perhaps most notable of all the people associated with the road – at least from the point of view of London street names – is Phyllis Pearsall, who conceived and created the iconic London A to Z map while living in a bedsit here. In her autobiography, Pearsall tried to find her way to a party using a map of the time and found the experience less than satisfactory as she got lost. A conversation at the party gave her the idea of mapping London and, like John Stow, she carried out her research by walking the streets of London. In her case, she supposedly walked 3,000 miles to check the names and house numbers of 23,000 streets.

Back, briefly, to the Moonwalk: if you are interested in sponsoring me for this endeavour, my fundraising page can be found here.