Pierogis, Piccadilly, and petticoats in London

Petticoat Lane view(And Sigourney Weaver, as promised.)

The wonderful website Party Excuses says that today is National Pierogy Day, and who am I to argue? The pierogy, or pierogi, is part of the Polish cuisine, so it’s not too much of a stretch to Poland Street in London’s Soho district.

The street was once part of a patch of land used as horse pasture by its 16th-century owner and it would appear that Poland Street is on the site of what was once called Little Gelding’s Close. Early in the 17th century, Little Gelding’s Close, along with 19 other acres of land, was sold to Robert Baker, the builder of Piccadilly Hall.

The name of Poland Street first appears in 1689, deriving from an inn called King of Poland. It is assumed that the pub was named in commemoration of the victory of John Sobieski, King of Poland, over the Turks in 1683.

The poet Percy Shelley once lodged in Poland Street.

There is a nearby street once called King Street, presumably also in commemoration of said victory. It has since been renamed Kingly Street and renaming of streets leads us nicely into Sigourney Weaver.

Today marks Ms Weaver’s 65th birthday and, yes, there is a connection, however tenuous, between that fine actress and a street in London. Well, ok, there is a Weaver Street (near Shuttle Street) in Spitalfields, and those streets do reflect the fact that the silk weaving industry was once predominant there.

But that’s too easy. Another weaver connection is that of Petticoat Lane, about a mile from Weaver Street. Despite the fact that the lane was once a “filthy and wretched street”, according to James Elmes, who wrote A Topographical Dictionary of London and Its Environs, it did once benefit from nearby pleasant fields.

The gentry flocked to build their houses in these relatively rural surroundings, but were soon ousted by an “influx of the French Refugees in the reign of Louis XIV, it became the residence of the lowest class of their weavers”.

(A bit of a slur on the weavers, perhaps, because in 1155 the Weavers’ Company received  its charter and it is the oldest recorded City Livery Company.)

So the name, dating back to the 17th century, could be from the silk weavers, who would have made petticoats, and who settled in the area; or from the secondhand clothes dealers who had begun to trade in the lane even back then. By the 19th century the lane was, said Henry Mayhew, a 19th-century social researcher, journalist, and playwright,  “essentially the old clothes district”, and to look down the lane at the time was “to look down a vista of many-coloured garments”.

The reason for changing a perfectly good name is, presumably, Victorian prudery that deemed women’s undergarments an unsuitable item for a street name. This wasn’t the first time its name was changed, however: early names were Berwardes Lane (from a local landowner) in the 14th century and Hog Lane in the 16th century (because, like Huggin Hill, it ran through a pig farm.

FH Habben, an outspoken, and sometimes downright curmudgeonly-sounding, 19th-century London historian, who wrote extensively on the city’s street names, was somewhat outraged at the name change, calling it an “instance of inappropriate name change”. He, however, ignored the whole rag trade, stating firmly that the name came from “The English form, I presume, of petit court, the little short lane.”

(Maybe Habben would have been somewhat mollified to know that the street is still better known as Petticoat Lane than Middlesex Street.)

Oh, yes, it was called Middlesex Street because it once formed a boundary between the city of London and the country of Middlesex (which now exists in a different form).

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Not what they seem: London’s gross street names

Pudding LaneMoving on from the scatological, today is the turn of some of the names that aren’t what they seem. And what they are can sometimes be a bit yukky.

Take, for instance, Pudding Lane, which was where the Great Fire of 1666 started. Given that the fire started in a baker’s house (the king’s baker), pudding sounds like something you’d find at a baker, right? Wrong. The lane, once part of the meat centre of London, earlier had the name of Red Rose Lane, but it was on the route where the ‘puddings’ – parcels of offal – were transported to be thrown into the river.

Seething Lane signAlong those lines is Seething Lane, which is nothing to do with anger. There are other theories as to the derivation of the name, but the one that suits today’s theme is that the area was once said to be a centre for making soap and glue; this involved the boiling of animal skins and the smelly, steaming cauldrons gave rise to the name of Seething. Samuel Pepys lived here and was awoken one night by his maid who told him of the great fire that was raging to the west.

Like Pudding Lane, the derivation of Bunhill Row’s name is not as appetizing as it might first appear. It comes from the nearby fields of the same name (Bunhill Fields, where Daniel Defoe was buried), originally Bone Hill Fields. The fields were a burial ground dating from 1549 when a thousand carts full of bones from the over-crowded charnel houses at St Paul’s dumped their loads there.However, the name was in use before then, so it seems likely that people had historically taken advantage of the marshy land there for dumping various items, presumably including bones.

Huggin HillLess disgusting, but still not what people might think (and probably an equal contender for the Animal London names), is Huggin Hill, a popular sign for cuddling couples looking for a photo opportunity. It is, however, nothing to do with cuddling or hugging. It was Hoggenlane in the 14th century, probably from the old English ‘hoggene’ – a lane where hogs were kept.

Along the same lines, and also a contender for Animal London, is Swain’s Lane in Highgate, which is, alas, nothing to do with gallant pastoral gentlemen. In the 15th century it was known as ‘Swayneslane’ but later forms of the name show bluntly its derivation: for a long time it was more commonly known as Swine Lane.

Golden Square, which works for London’s gemstones and precious metals street names category, yet to come in this blog, is also nothing to do with what the name suggests. The site upon which the square stands was known as Gelding’s Cross in the early 17th century when the land was used for farming. (Like Bunhill Fields, the square was also a plague burial pit).

Hugs, roman baths, and banks

Huggin HillIn the City of London, near Friday Street and Bread Street is a street popular with canoodling couples who like to pose next to the (unromantic -looking) sign, which is Huggin Hill. There is also a Huggin Court leading off the hill.

Unfortunately, while Huggin may be warm and cuddly-sounding, it has nothing to do with hugging, euphemistically (as with Love Lane) or otherwise. It was called Hoggenlane in the 14th century, from the old English ‘hoggene’ – a lane where hogs were kept. Historian John Stow, however, believed that it was named after Hugan, a 13th-century resident, and that the name was ‘Hugan in the lane’.

Holly_Village_Highgate,_London_-_geograph.org.uk_-_1092171
The entrance to Highgate’s Holly Village (Photo copyright Nigel Mykura)

In 1964, the remains of a Roman bath were discovered in Huggin Hill; they had been built around 75 AD, and used the vast supply of water from the Thames. The building was enlarged in the early 2nd century, possibly because of a visit from Hadrian, and then was demolished by 200 AD, though the reason for its demolition is unknown.

But back to hogs: there is a Swain’s Lane in Highgate; it is, alas, nothing to do with gallant pastoral gentlemen. In the 15th century it was known as ‘Swayneslane’ but later forms of the name show bluntly its derivation: for a long time it was more commonly known as Swine Lane. Presumably the change to the earlier version was made, as so often happened in London, by residents preferring a less earthy name (see Golden Square).

At the foot of Swains Lane is Holly Village, a group of eight Gothic cottages, all built to slightly different designs. The cottages were build for Baroness Angela Burdett Coutts, who lived in nearby Holly Lodge, and this gave rise to the rumour that the cottages had been designed for the Baroness’s servants. In fact, Holly Village was a middle-class housing estate, and a highly successful commercial development.

Angela Burdett Coutts
Baroness Burdett Coutts

Angela Burdett Coutts, heiress to the Coutts bank fortune, was a great philanthropist, but also inevitably a very eligible bachelorette. In the Ingoldsby Legends, RH Barham wrote about Queen Victoria’s coronation (‘Mr Barney Maguire’s Account of the Coronation’) and mentioned “The famale heiress, Miss Anja-ly Coutts”.

The bank itself was founded in 1692 – the same year as the Salem witch trials began – by John Campbell, a Scottish goldsmith banker, who set up his business on the Strand. Coutts was eventually absorbed by the Royal Bank of Scotland; that institution was, in turn, bailed out by the UK taxpayers a few years ago at the height of the financial crisis. Having, reportedly, lost all the money invested in it by the taxpayers, recent reports suggest that RBS will pay the taxpayers £1.5 billion in order to return to the private sector.

Huggin Court