From Brook Street to Quaggy Walk: river-related London street names

Given the recent activity of the River Wye, during which it was in closer proximity to my house that I would have liked, I thought I would take a short break from Hogarth and focus on a few of the London street names with river connections. London’s rivers, part of the transportation system, provided boundaries for ecclesiastical property in Saxon times and were a source of water for much of the city.

Let’s start with Fleet Street, which takes its name from ‘flēot’, an Anglo-Saxon word meaning a tidal inlet. The Fleet still flows, but underground, and it is used as a sewer. This continues a practice started in the 14th century when butchers used the river for cleaning out animal entrails and others followed suit by dumping refuse into it. Pudding Lane was once part of the meat centre of London and was known earlier as Red Rose Lane; its newer name arose from the face that it was on the route where the ‘puddings’ – parcels of offal – were transported to be thrown into the river.

While ‘fleet’ was nothing to do with speed, Quaggy River was so called because it moved sluggishly – like ‘quagmire’. The river, which was part of the bounds of the Manor of Bankhurst, gives its name to Quaggy Walk in Blackheath. The name is relatively recent: until 1863 it was known as Lee Water.

There was an Effra River in South London; technically, there still is but it is now underground. It gives its name to Effra Road (also Effra Court and Parade) in Brixton. The name is another relatively recent one, and there are varying opinions as to its derivation. One view is that it is is a corruption of ‘Heathrow’, a former manor of some 70 acres south of present day Coldharbour Lane and east of present day Effra Road. The name Heathrow meant just that: a row of houses along a heath.

Coldharbour Lane is a fairly common place and street name in the UK. In this case it is in memory of an ancient manor called Coldherbergh – Cold Abbey. ‘Harbour’ derives from the Middle English word meaning ‘shelter’, and cold harbours are considered to have been wayside shelters that provided for travellers a roof over their heads, and nothing more.

Knightsbridge takes its name from a bridge which stood, for centuries, over the Westbourne river. In earlier times ‘knight’ was simply a generic term for ‘young man’, usually servants of barons and lords. It was known as a dangerous area, with highwaymen, robbers and cutthroats targeting travellers on the western route out of London. By the 19th century it was well on its way to becoming the affluent area that it is today.

The Westbourne river was originally known as the Kilburn, which in turn derives either from the old English term ‘cyne-burna’ (royal stream) or ‘cyna-burna’ (cattle stream). Or it could have been from ‘Kilnbourn’ because of tile-making in the area. The river enters Hyde Park at what is now the Serpentine. The Serpentine lake was formed in 1730 by building a dam across the Westbourne at the instigation of Queen Caroline, wife of George II, to beautify the royal park.

Jacob’s Well Mews was named for a local resident, Jacob Hinde, who also gave his name to nearby Hinde Street; there was a Jacob’s Well tavern at the end of the mews until 1893. The Tyburn river flowed through the area, which is probably where the water for the well came from. It was in a house in this mews that the young Michael Faraday lived.

The Tyburn River (from ‘teoburna’, or boundary stream) is where a gallows was erected and which served as London’s place of public execution until the 19th century. The site of the old gallows is marked on the ground at Marble Arch, where the Bayswater and Edgware roads meet. (Tyburn features in the recent post on Hogarth and hanging-related streets, which you can read here.)

There is a Tyburn Brook, which is a tributary of the Westbourne; some sources say it is the brook that gives its name to Brook Street, others that it is from the Tyburn River. Former music-related residents of Brook Street include Jimi Hendrix, George Frideric Handel, and the Bee Gees: Barry, Robin, and Maurice Gibb.

Horseferry Road takes its name from a horse ferry, supposedly older than London Bridge, and the only one of its kind allowed in London. At one time communication between the north and south banks of the River Thames was not easy, especially without bridges. The ferry was supposed to have been established when St Peter himself was taken across to consecrate Westminster Abbey and there is a story that once, when Oliver Cromwell was being taken across the river, his coach sank in mid-stream.

London’s lost rivers: The Who, Lillie Langtry, and Pont Street

Langtry plaque
Pont Street plaque; photo courtesy of Open Plaques

The Who song ‘Pictures of Lily’ was being played on the radio the other day, so naturally I thought of Lily (or Lillie) Langtry as I have always assumed the song was about her. Both real and fictional Lily died in 1929.

When I researched it, I was a bit taken aback to find on Wikipedia a quote from Pete Townshend about what the meaning of the song was. Many of my friends (the same ones who accuse me on occasion of being cynical) say that I have a mind that can descend rather often and far down into the gutter but that was an interpretation that never occurred to me.

Be that as it may, I also researched Lillie Langtry and London connections. Yes, there are some, notably Pont Street in Knightsbridge, and Inverness Terrace.

Lillie lived at number 21 Pont Street, now the Cadogan Hotel, for five years from 1892 to 1897. The building became a hotel in 1895 but she always stayed in her former bedroom. The hotel was also where, shortly after it opened, Oscar Wilde was arrested. Pont Street features in John Betjeman’s poem, ‘The Arrest of Oscar Wilde at the Cadogan Hotel’:

To the right and before him Pont Street
Did tower in her new built red,
As hard as the morning gaslight
That shone on his unmade bed,

Pont Street takes its name from the word pont, the French for bridge; the street was built to bridge the river Westbourne. This river formed the Serpentine in Hyde Park after Queen Caroline (George II’s wife) suggested it be dammed up to form a 40-acre lake.

People have offered up the theory that Bridge Street might not have sounded upmarket enough to properly developers. At least they didn’t decide to change the Knightsbridge name, street or area, to Knightspont; Knightsbridge the street was also a bridge over the Westbourne. (No, I promise after my earlier post on blood sport street names, I’m not going to bang on about name changes. Well, not today, anyway.)

Westbourne, apparently, takes its name from an old village, ‘Westburne’; this was west of the river and Paddington was east. The river also gave its name to Bayswater, once known as ‘Baynard’s watering-place’, where animals were taken to drink.

Which brings us nicely back to Lillie Langtry – there is a hotel in Inverness Terrace, off Bayswater Road, where she is supposed to have performed in a theatre when she was the mistress of the Prince of Wales, later Edward VII. However, the Theatres Trust, a National Advisory Public Body for Theatres in the UK, declares icily that:

“There is a persistent tradition that the theatre was created for Lillie Langtry by her Royal patron. Their affair was notorious twenty years earlier when he was Prince of Wales but by 1905 he was king. No evidence has been found to support the story but without positive disproof it is likely to go on running.”