London’s culinary streets: from bacon to buns

Well, readers, I appear to have painted myself into a corner with trying to be too specific with categories of culinary street names (see yesterday’s post) and now I’ve messed up the alphabetical order of them. Since even I need some kind of system I am throwing categories to the wind and backtracking to the letter ‘b’. Starting with Bacon’s Lane in Highgate, and Bacon Grove in Bermondsey.

Bacon’s Lane is not really about bacon: it is named after Sir Francis Bacon; it marks the spot of the house where he died, a victim of his own thirst for knowledge: he contracted pneumonia after investigating the principles of refrigeration, a pursuit that involved him stuffing a fowl with snow to see if it would preserve the meat.

Incidentally, Bacon’s other connections to London streets include the Strand (or just Strand, if you prefer), where he was born, and Bleeding Heart Yard. He was an unsuccessful suitor of Lady Elizabeth Hatton, who is the source of one of the theories behind the name of Bleeding Heart Yard.

Bacon Grove is also not about bacon; however, it does not take its name from Francis Bacon. It is from Josiah Bacon, a 17th-century leather merchant whose will provided for the foundation of Bacon’s School (later a City Technology College, and now an Academy called Bacon’s College), along with an endowment of £150 per year.

In the interest of full disclosure I should say that there is also a Bacon Street in East London, but I still don’t know the derivation of that particular name.

Bunhill Row is definitely not really a culinary street name as it it nothing to do with buns. It is, more disgustingly, from the nearby fields of the same name, 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. 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, including bones.

In the 17th century it was intended as a burial ground for victims of the 1665 plague; it was never used for that purpose, nor was it ever consecrated, leading it to become a popular burial ground with the non-conformists. Following the Burial Act of 1852, allowing such places to be closed when they became full, the last burial that took place there was in 1854 when a 15-year-old girl was laid to rest.

Among the bones of 120,000 people who were interred in Bunhill Fields were John Bunyan, William Blake, and Daniel Defoe. There is a memorial, erected in 1870, to mark Defoe’s resting place; the money was obtained from a collection taken up by local schoolchildren. There is also an adjoining Quaker churchyard that contains the body of George Fox.

John Milton had a house in Bunhill Row from 1662 until his death in 1674.

Happily, Bunhouse Place (not Funhouse, as my computer is convinced) in Chelsea does relate to food – Chelsea buns, what else? Mr and Mrs Hand established the Chelsea Bun House near here in the 18th century. Jonathan Swift was sold a stale bun one day and he wrote in a letter dated 1711, “Pray, are not the fine buns sold here in our town; was it not Rrrrrrrrrare Chelsea buns? I bought one to-day in my walk; it cost me a penny; it was stale, and I did not like it…”

Despite Swift’s disappointment, Bun House did a storming trade, and was patronized by royalty; there were said to be as many as 50,000 people waiting outside on Good Fridays to buy hot cross buns, traditionally eaten on that day. This caused some consternation among the neighbours and in 1793 Mrs Hand declared that she would not sell any hot cross buns on that day.

This was made clear (or maybe not) in a notice on the shop window, which read:

“Mrs. Hand respectfully informs her friends and the public, that in consequence of the great concourse of people which assembled before her house at a very early hour, on the morning of Good Friday last, by which her neighbours (with whom she has always lived in friendship and repute) have been much alarmed and annoyed; it having also been intimated, that to encourage or countenance a tumultuous assembly at this particular period might be attended with consequences more serious than have hitherto been apprehended; desirous, therefore, of testifying her regard and obedience to those laws by which she is happily protected, she is determined, though much to her loss, not to sell Cross Buns on that day to any person whatever, but Chelsea buns as usual.”

Despite the fact that business began to decline in 1804, there were still nearly a quarter of a million buns sold on Good Friday 1839, the year when the Bun House finally closed.

In 1592 it was made illegal to sell hot cross buns except at burials, on Good Friday, or at Christmas. Those who ignored the edict had to forfeit their buns to the poor.

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London’s culinary streets: Artichoke Hill to Cinnamon Street

It’s been a shamefully long gap between blog posts, for which I can only apologize whole-heartedly. As ever, my wonderful readers have slapped me into action, and this time it was my Twitter buddy PaxView Jeff (@JR_justJR), whose delightful blog you can read here. He directed me to an article on how London’s food and drink streets got their name; most of the ones listed there have been featured in this blog so it seems a good time to go through the culinary streets of London.

There are three kinds of culinary streets, or so I have broken them down: the ones with straightforward names that seem, and are, obvious; the ones with less straightforward names that are, nonetheless, still obvious; and the ones that seem straightforward and obvious but are neither.

artichokehill
Image courtesy of streatsoflondon.com

Let’s start with a street that is, surprisingly for many London street names, what it sounds like. Artichoke Hill in East London takes its name from an inn sign. The artichoke was adopted as a sign because of its comparative rarity and unusual shape, which lent itself well to artistic representation; it became a symbol for gardeners and was a common one for inns in garden areas.

Artichokes were introduced to England in the 16th century, during the reign of Henry VIII, and as much as a century later they were still rare enough to command a high price.

There is an Artichoke inn in Devon, dating from the 13th century, which was purportedly used as a headquarters for the Crusaders who were thought to have brought an artichoke back with them.

Bread St EC4Bread Street, off Cheapside, also takes its name from bread. Cheapside itself comes from the Anglo-Saxon ‘ceap’: to buy or barter. West Cheap, as it was known (to distinguish it from Eastcheap), was one of the busiest thoroughfares in London and the city’s main food market.

Edward I decreed in 1302 that bakers could sell bread only from what became Bread Street. Before that, the prominent historian and writer Sir Walter Besant tells us, “Of Bread Street there is very early mention. In 1204 the leprous women of St James’s received a charter respecting a certain tenement in Chepe, at the head of Bread Street.”

By the 16th century the street had changed. According to John Stow, “Bread Street is now wholly inhabited by rich merchants, and divers fair inns be there, for good receipt of carriers and other travellers to the City.”

It was also inhabited by the city’s petty criminals: Bread Street became the 16th-century site of a ‘compter’, or small prison used mainly for crimes such as drunkenness, prostitution, and not paying one’s debts. The warden of the Bread Street compter, Richard Husband, was so corrupt and harsh on his prisoners that moves were taken to remove him.

However, it was discovered that Husband owned the lease on the prison so could not be disloged. John Stow was a member of the jury enquiring into the affair, which concluded that among his other transgressions Husband was charging thieves and strumpets four pence a night to lodge in the compter, thus hiding from any official who might be pursuing them.

In order to get around the fact of Husband owning the lease, says Stow, “In 1555 the prisoners were removed from thence to one other new Compter in Wood Street, provided by the City’s purchase, and built for that purpose.”

Bread Street has many famous associations. The poet John Milton was born here, at the sign of the Spread Eagle; his father was a scrivener (public writer, or public notary) in Bread Street, and the Spread Eagle was the Milton’s armorial ensign.

One entrance of the Mermaid Tavern led onto Bread Street while the other was on Friday Street. It was here, tradition holds, that Sir Walter Raleigh instituted the Mermaid Club, or the Fraternity of Sireniacal Gentlemen. Sadly, Raleigh was, at the time of the club’s founding, imprisoned in the Tower of London, but eminent figures such as Ben Jonson and John Donne were among the Sireniacal Gentlemen and there have been many literary references to the Mermaid over the centuries.

Jonson refers to the tavern in a poem, Inviting a Friend to Supper, when he discusses the relative merits of wine over food:

“But that, which most doth take my Muse, and mee,
Is a pure cup of rich Canary-wine,
Which is the Mermaids, now, but shall be mine”

There was also a belief that Shakespeare was a member of the club; grave doubts have been cast on this idea, but it is certain that Jonson was an habitué of the Mermaid, and at least possible that he was joined on occasion by Shakespeare.

Shakespeare also had a connection with the Mermaid’s landlord, William Johnson. In 1613, when Shakespeare bought the Blackfriars gatehouse (later bequeathed to his eldest daughter), Johnson was listed as a trustee for the mortgage. The gatehouse was near the Blackfriars theatre and it is assumed that Shakespeare lodged there, though there is little evidence of that. Neither gatehouse nor theatre still stand.

Admiral Arthur Phillip, founder and governor of a convict colony in Australia that later became New South Wales was born in the Ward of Bread Street.

Camomile Street EC3Camomile Street probably takes its name from one of the wild plants that grew abundantly near London Wall. In the 12th and 13th centuries, houses were built no closer than about five metres from the wall to keep the defensive line clear and the land along the line of the wall was allowed to grow wild. Camomile, the name of which comes from the Greek for ‘earth apple’, was used to treat ills such as hay fever, insomnia, and upset stomachs.

Cinnamon Street The name appears at the end of the 17th century and probably comes from the fact that the spice was sold there.

cinnamonstreet
Image courtesy of streatsoflondon.com

It was in this street, at the Pear Tree Inn, that John Williams was staying when blood-stained knife was discovered among his belongings and suspicion fell upon him in relation to the Ratcliffe Highway Murders. These murders, which pre-dated the activities of Jack the Ripper, caused the Wapping area as much error and confusion. (The eminent crime writer PD James co-wrote a book called The Maul and the Pear Tree: The Ratcliffe Highway Murders, 1811.)

The first incident occurred on 7 December 1811 when a draper, Mr Marr, sent his maid out to buy oysters. She was unable to get back into the shop upon her return and summoned help. The house was finally broken into and revealed the bodies of Mr Marr and the shopboy downstairs, and Mrs Marr and their child upstairs. They had been murdered with a maul and a ripping chisel that were found on the floor of the shop.

Less than a week later the landlord of a nearby pub, his wife, and their maid were all found with fractured skulls and cut throats. There was a public outcry, rewards were offered by the government, and over 40 people were arrested for the crimes before the finger of suspicion pointed at Williams. Whether or not he was actually guilty (and there is a modern theory that he was framed) was never proved: he hanged himself before the hearing.

As well as being a den of 19th-century East End crime, Ratcliffe Highway (later named St George Street and now The Highway), was, according to Walter Thornbury in Old and New London, “The Regent Street of London sailors, who, in many instances, never extend their walks in the metropolis beyond this semi-marine region.”

There were many shops here that sold a remarkable variety of wild animals and, says Thornbury: “The wild-beast shops in this street have often been sketched by modern essayists. The yards in the neighbourhood are crammed with lions, hyenas, pelicans, tigers, and other animals in demand among the proprietors of menageries. As many as ten to fifteen lions are often in stock at one time, and sailors come here to sell their pets and barter curiosities. The ingenious way that animals are stored in these out-of-the-way places is well worth seeing.”

Jamrach’s Animal Emporium was the largest of these; indeed, probably the largest in the world, run by German-born Charles Jamrach who sold animals to circuses, zoos, and private collectors. In 1857 one of his Bengal tigers broke loose, captured a young boy, and ran off with him. Jamrach pursued the tiger and released the boy; a statue at the north end of Tobacco Dock commemorates event.

On the subject of spices beginning with the letter ‘c’, there is also a Clove Street, E13 and a Coriander Avenue, E14, perhaps also because of the spice trade in East London.

With thanks to Mykal Shaw of the wonderful website streatsoflondon.com for many of the photos.

Wales, John Milton, and Sleepy Hollow

This day in London history: on 20 December 1955 Cardiff was proclaimed the capital city of Wales. There is a street called Petty Wales in London, possibly because it was the settlement of a Welsh centre (from ‘petit’, French for ‘little’). There is also a Petty France in London, for many years the home of the London passport office. There were once several ‘foreign’ sectors in London, such as Petty Burgundy and Petty Calais, though one of them is nothing to do with the nationality of its inhabitants.

Little Britain, in the City of London, took its name from the 13th-century Robert le Bretoun, who inherited some houses in the area: the street was called Brettonstrete. Later Londoners assumed it was, like Petty Calais and Petty Burgundy, named because it was a street inhabited by people of Brittany.

For centuries, Little Britain was the centre of London’s book trade. There is a story that the Earl of Dorset found, in a bookshop here, a book, called Paradise Lost and written by John Milton, that was not selling terribly well. He sent it to the poet John Dryden who acclaimed it as a masterpiece, saying, “This man cuts us all out, and the ancients too.”

However, some doubt has been shed on this story due to the fact that Paradise Lost was, apparently, a bestseller of its day. According to Samuel Johnson, there were only 1,000 copies of Shakespeare’s works in circulation between 1623 and 1664. In contrast, for two years (and after this supposed discovery took place), there were 1,300 copies of Paradise Lost available. Having debunked the story, the writer does concede that it is an “alluring and popular story”.

Little Britain is mentioned in The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, a selection of essays and short stories written by Washington Irving (perhaps better known for Rip Van Winkle and The Legend of Sleep Hollow). He writes:

“In the centre of the great City of London lies a small neighborhood, consisting of a cluster of narrow streets and courts, of very venerable and debilitated houses, which goes by the name of LITTLE BRITAIN. Christ Church School and St Bartholomew’s Hospital bound it on the west; Smithfield and Long Lane on the north; Aldersgate Street, like an arm of the sea, divides it from the eastern part of the city; whilst the yawning gulf of Bull-and-Mouth Street separates it from Butcher Lane and the regions of Newgate. Over this little territory, thus bounded and designated, the great dome of St. Paul’s, swelling above the intervening houses of Paternoster Row, Amen Corner, and Ave-Maria Lane, looks down with an air of motherly protection.”

Milton, London’s early shopping street, and grubs

EAS_3904

This day in London’s history: on 9 December 1608, the poet John Milton was born in Bread Street off Cheapside in London.

EAS_4057Cheapside takes its name from the Anglo-Saxon ‘ceap’, to buy or barter. West Cheap, as it was once known, to distinguish it from Eastcheap, was one of the busiest thoroughfares in London and the city’s main food market. The medieval grocery shopper would have gone there for staples such as Bread, Milk, Honey, and Fish, and the streets that lead off Cheapside were named for their specialities.

In the case of Bread Street, Edward I decreed in 1302 that bakers could sell bread only from this street. Before that, the “leprous women of St James’s” were allowed a tenement here in 1204; part of the street was later destroyed by fire in 1263.

EAS_4055The poet also lives on in London names in Milton Street, formerly Grub Street. This was known as ‘Grubbestrete’ in the 13th century and could have meant, in the London tradition of not mincing words when it came to street names, ‘street infested with maggots’. It could also have been from ‘grube’, a ditch or drain, or from a personal name – Grub was not an uncommon name in the 13th century.

The street was once largely inhabited by people occupied with archery: according to historian John Stow, in the 16th century, it was “of late years inhabited, for the most part, by bowyers, fletchers, bowstring makers, and such like occupations.” Things started to change, as he also notes with disapproval that archery was giving way to “a number of bowling-alleys and dicing houses, which in all places are increased, and too much frequented”.

Grub Street
19th-century Grub Street

Towards the end of the 17th century, the street became the haunt of poor and hack writers. Another poet, Andrew Marvell, coined the phrase ‘Grub Street’, which became a generic term for sub-standard literary achievements. This use was aided by Dr Johnson’s definition of it in his 1754 dictionary as “a street near Moorfields, much inhabited by writers of small histories, dictionaries, and temporary poems, whence any mean production is called Grub Street”.

Pope and Swift were two other writers who attacked Grub Street and Pope popularized the street’s image in his Dunciad, described by Pope as “a general satire of Dulness, with characters of contemporary Grub Street scribblers”.

The hack writers flourished, however, and it was not until the 19th century that they began to move away. The local residents, weary of the reputation of their street, decided to change the name and in 1830 it became Milton Street.

While it could have been named after the poet, another theory is that it was the name of a local property owner; according to the 19th-century work A Topographical Dictionary of London and Its Environs by James Elmes, “a respectable builder so called, who has taken the whole street on a repairing lease”.