Weird and wonderful street names of London

Yesterday I read a great blog post  by Fun London Tours about the City of London’s 10 most unusual street names. Nearly all of them have been included in this blog, or lined up to be so at some point,  so I thought today I would provide a companion piece by way of some more detail on some of the streets mentioned.

EAS_4029Knightrider Street: This street featured in this blog when I was writing about some of the streets I would be going through or near when I took part in the MoonWalk London 2014. The obvious explanation is that it is from knights riding to riding from the Tower Royal to jousting tournaments at Smithfield but there is more to it than that, with some spoilsports arguing that knightrider is not a word.  (And, Fun London Tours blog points out, “David Hasselhoff has his own little shrine in the adjacent Centrepage pub!”)

Friday StFriday Street: It may have taken its name from Frigdaeges, an Old English name, but most people plump for John Stow’s theory that it was “so called of fishmongers dwelling there and serving Friday’s market”. There was a time in Catholic England when eating meat on Friday was forbidden and, at least one meat eater was executed for that crime. Friday is, it seems, the only day of the week represented in London street names.

French Ordinary Court cropFrench Ordinary Court: Leading off another street unusual name (Crutched Friars), this small street was given its name because in the 17th century the Huguenots were allowed by the French Ambassador, who had his residence in Crutched Friars, to sell coffee and pastries. They also served fixed price meals; in those days such a meal was called an ‘ordinary’.

cock laneLove Lane: There’s no better way of putting it than to quote the inimitabel John Stow, who said bluntly that it was “so called of wantons”. Love, but with a price tag. There are many streets with names that have bawdy and that category could include Cock Lane, as Fun London Tours naughtily suggests.

Cock Lane could take its name from the fact that the only place where the City’s prostitutes could live; it may also have a less lewd (though bloody) explanation for its name. Cock Lane was, perhaps, most famous for its ghost.
Wardrobe Terrace crop

Wardrobe Place: Amazingly, what it seems: in 1359 a house belonging to Sir John Beauchamp was purchased by Edward II and became the storeroom for the royal clothing. The house was destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666 but the name lives on. The area was mentioned in Shakespeare’s will, when he bequeathed land near the Wardrobe to his daughter.

Cripplegate Street: This takes its name from one of London’s Roman city gates, supposedly thus named because when Edmund the Martyr’s body was brought through the gate in 1010, some cripples were miraculously cured. This theory has its detractors, who claim that the name comes from ‘crepul’ – a tunnel or covered way, which was constructed for the sentries there.

Mincing Lane cropMincing Lane: This Lane, with connections to Jimmy Choo and Cruella de Ville, takes its name from nothing to do with funny walks. The word derives from the Old English feminine of ‘monk’, and the name dates back to the 12th century. According to London historian John Stow, it was once “Mincheon lane, so called of tenements there sometime pertaining to the Minchuns or nuns of St Helens in Bishopsgate.”

EAS_4136St Mary Axe: This name involves an axe and a Saint Mary, and takes its name from the church of the same name, later combined with St Thomas Undershaft. Supposedly Maurius, father of King Cole – gave his daughter Ursula permission to travel to Germany with 11,000 virgins who were subsequently slain by an enraged Attila and his Huns.

EAS_4139With all due respect to the blog that inspired this particular post, it is hard to talk about St Mary Axe without mentioning another weird and wonderful City of London street name: Undershaft.

Crutched FriarsCrutched Friars: A relatively new name (the street was once called, less interestingly, Hart Street), it derives its current name from a holy order, the Crossed Friars, an Augustinian order who wore habits that were blue with, usually, a red cross on the back.

Hanging Sword Alley: This name can be traced back as early as 1564, when a large Tudor house was known by the sign of the Hanging Sword. The area was popular with fencing masters and the sign may have referred to this occupation. The alley was also known at one time by the sinister name of Blood Bowl Alley, after a 14th century inn, depicted in Plate 9 of Hogarth’s ‘Industry and Idleness’ series.

EAS_3921Of course, if we’re looking at gory street names in the City of London, a particular favourite is Bleeding Heart Yard.

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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.

Pissing alleys, meat markets, and revolting peasants

EAS_3912We ended yesterday’s Moonwalk-themed blog post with a passing reference to Passing (once Pissing) Alley, which is near Smithfield Market, and the subject of the post – Knightrider Street – was a route to Smithfield. Guess where we start today?

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Smithfield Market [Photo: James Ketteringham]
Smithfield played an important, albeit gruesome, part in the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381. Incensed by unjust taxation, peasants from Kent and Essex marched on London, ransacking buildings and beheading the Archbishop of Canterbury on Tower Hill.The revolt ended abruptly when one of the rebel leaders, Wat Tyler, was slashed by the Lord Mayor William Walworth’s sword and stabbed by an esquire of King Richard II at Smithfield.EAS_3909Before Smithfield became a meat market, it was the Smooth field where jousting tournaments were held; knights rode through Giltspur Street (which was originally called Knightrider Street) to reach the tournament.

EAS_3911
The Golden Boy of Pye Corner

According to one of our favourite London historians, John Stow: “Gilt Spurre, or Knightriders’ street of the knights and others riding that way into Smithfield was replenished with buildings on both sides up to Pie Corner.” (Pie, or Pye, Corner marks the spot at the corner of Giltspur Street and Cock Lane where the Great Fire ended, and there is a Golden Boy there to commemorate it.)

Spurs were an essential part of the knight’s life in medieval times; the expression ‘to win one’s spurs’ – to prove oneself – comes from the fact that originally it meant to obtain knighthood. (The word ‘spur’ itself derives from the Anglo-Saxon spura, to kick.)

Gilt spurs, therefore, would have been a real mark of oneupmanship. It is assumed that there were spurriers’ shops in the street at some point, possibly specializing in gilt spurs, or perhaps an enterprising spurrier wanted his shops to be noticeable as the ‘sign of the golden spur’.

Tyburn
A hanging at Tyburn

Giltspur Street later had a far less glamorous side to it. It was the site of the Giltspur Street Compter (a debtors’ prison), built at the end of the 18th century. When the Wood Street compter was closed in 1791, the prisoners were moved to the Giltspur Street compter, which in turn was demolished in 1855.

The street also formed part of the route from Newgate Prison to Tyburn, leading into the steep ascent of Holborn Hill, sometimes called Heavy Hill. As prisoners on that journey rode backwards, the expressions ‘to ride up Heavy Hill’ or ‘to ride backwards up Holborn Hill’ indicated that someone was on their last journey.

The expression ‘going west’, unlike the ‘go west’ of American pioneering times, referred to that last journey towards Tyburn.

Knights, a royal doctor, and doing nothing

EAS_4029Two weeks to go till I take part in the London Moonwalk 2014 and today we can look at another street that is near, if not actually on, the route of the 26.2 mile walk, and that is Knightrider Street near St Paul’s Cathedral.

Knightrider Street, surprisingly for a London street name, actually has a very simple derivation: the street was part of the route for knights riding from the Tower Royal to jousting tournaments at Smithfield.

But of course it’s not that easy and some wet-blanket scholars, however, dispute the theory on the grounds that there is no recorded instance of the word ‘knightrider’. It could be, their argument goes, that the street was really called ‘Riderstrete’ – rider being a Middle English synonym for knight – and that ‘knight’ was added to the street name in general use.

Linacre plaqueThere is a blue plaque in the street to commemorate the fact that Thomas Linacre lived there. Linacre was a distinguished physician whose patients included Henry VIII and Cardinal Wolsey. Sir Thomas More was also a patient and a friend.

Thomas Linacre (probably)
A portrait of (probably) Thomas Linacre

Linacre established the Royal College of Physicians in 1518 and was its first president; early meetings were held at his house in Knightrider Street. In 1520 he took up holy orders and gave up practising medicine.

The Horn tavern in Knightrider street was mentioned in Dickens’ Pickwick Papers and, before it was damaged by fire in 1866 and demolished, the church of St Mary Magdalen stood at the corner of the street. RH Barham, the author of The Ingoldsby Legends, a work that includes a story about Bleeding Heart Yard, was rector there from 1824 to 1842 and was buried in the church.

EAS_4032There is also a Knightrider Court, once called Dolittle Lane. This was not, originally, named for a person, famous or otherwise: even more logically it appears that, as John Stow theorized and most people accept, it was so called because it served no actual purpose.

As Stow put it, “a place not inhabited by artificers or open shopkeepers, but serving for a near passage from Knightriders’ street to Carter lane”.

In other words, it was good only for getting from one place to another – what some people would have us believe is the reason behind the name of Passing Alley – but that is altogether another, more scatological, story.

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