I had my knuckles rapped metaphorically by a Twitter bot – did I really just write that? – someone who has taken to Twitter to take umbrage at Madame D’Arblay, née Frances Burney, being referred to as Fanny in yesterday’s post on Half Moon Street. What’s the big deal, I wondered, what’s in a name? That made me think of some of the ‘proper’ names in London that are not nearly as much fun as their previous names.
Let’s start with the obvious: Middlesex Street. Boring, eh? Don’t most people know it as Petticoat Lane? I used to live in Reading where there was a passage properly called Union Street but commonly known (because of a long-term fishmonger there) as Smelly Alley. It was years before I learned that it was really Union Street.
Similarly, I remember trying to find Petticoat Lane in a London A-Z and discovering that it was really Middlesex Street. Yawn. Why, in 1830, Petticoat Lane was renamed I don’t know, but apparently the lane was once a boundary between the City of London and the county of Middlesex.
There is a history of renaming the lane: in the 14th century this was a country lane called Berwardes Lane, after the local landowner. By the 16th century it ran through a pig farm and was renamed Hog Lane.
It then, presumably through a combination of the French silk weavers who settled in the area and the secondhand clothes dealers who established this as the centre of London’s used clothes district, became Petticoat Lane.
One of my favourite sources for information on London street names is a 19th-century writer called FH Habben who wrote a book called London street names; their origin, signification, and historic value, published in 1896. He (like the abovementioned bot) could be a little testy at times, particularly when it came to the meaningless renaming of streets and believed this to be an “instance of inappropriate name change”. He ignored the whole rag trade, stating firmly that the name came from the English form of petit court, a little short lane.”
Another favourite name of mine that has, again I have no idea why, been changed from fun to boring is Of Alley, which is now York Place and was once part of the house and gardens belonging to George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham. Both of them: father and son, royalists both, who were the first two holders of the title of Duke of Buckingham, and both called George Villiers.
The second duke, a loyal follower of Charles II, fled the country with his king when England became an unhealthy place for them. Although his property was confiscated by Cromwell’s Parliament, Villiers regained it after the Restoration and own return to England.
The property didn’t do him much good: Villiers junior managed to run up so much in the way of debt that he was forced to sell his land. In 1674 it became the possession of a property developer on the condition that the streets built on the land were given Villers’ name. All of them. There were five in total, and they became George Street, Villiers Street, Duke Street (now gone), Of Alley, and Buckingham Street.
At least the street signs there still proclaim that it is York Place, formerly Of Alley.