From Billingsgate to Pall Mall: women in London street names on International Women’s Day

Today is International Women’s Day and, as promised, here are some more – and even more tenuous women’s links to London street names, starting with possibly the most tenuous: Janis Joplin and Kensington Gore.

Kensington Gore is the address of the Royal Albert Hall, where Janis Joplin once performed in concert. Texan-born Janis began singing blues and folk music at high school and later became one of the most successful and widely known female rock stars of her era. Her posthumously-released album Pearl (became the biggest-selling album of her career and featured her biggest hit single, a cover of ‘Me and Bobby McGee’, originally sung by Kris Kristofferson. She died of a accidental heroin overdose at the age of 27, within days of Jimi Hendrix’s death at the same age. This led many people to attribute significance to the death of musicians at the age of 27.

(When I was a teenager I was often told I looked like Janis Joplin; I think it was the long hair, centre part, and glasses of that time. Those three features meant that occasionally I was also told I looked like John Lennon, which was less preferable to a self-conscious teenaged girl.)

But I digress.

Back to Kensingon Gore: the ‘gore’ part of the name is innocent of anything gruesome: it comes from the Old English word ‘gara’, which was a triangular piece of land left after irregularly shaped fields and been ploughed. This could be the triangle formed by Knightsbridge, Queen’s Gate and the Brompton Road. Aretired British pharmacist, John Tinegate, used to make fake blood for the stage and screen and it was trademarked Kensington Gore.

We move on to Allgood Street and Henrietta Wentworth. Henrietta was the 6th Baroness Wentworth and, though due to marry Richard Tufton, 5th Earl of Thanet, took up with the already-married Duke of Monmouth. Monmouth, the natural but illegitimate son of Charles II, sought to overthrow his uncle, King James II of England and James VI of Scotland, younger brother and heir of Charles II.

Monmouth’s rebellion was ultimately unsuccessful and he was executed at Tower Hill. Henrietta had used her jewels and wealth to help fund Monmouth and she died the year after Monmouth’s execution, supposedly from a broken heart. Her mother had an elaborate monument built to Henrietta’s memory in the church at Toddington, the Wentworth’s estate in Bedfordshire. However, a more personal and touching memorial existed in the form of her name, carved by Monmouth, on an oak tree in the Toddington estate. The tree became known locally as the Monmouth.

Allgood Street in East London was previously called Henrietta Street but was later renamed after a local antiquarian, HGC Allgood, who published a history of Bethnal Green in 1894. 

Birdcage Walk, which runs along St James’s Park, also involves a broken-hearted woman; in this case she adhered to the principle of ‘don’t get mad, get even’. The walk really once did involve birds, cages, and walking: it is the site of an aviary started by James I and enlarged by his grandson, Charles II (though some sources give Charles the credit for establishing it). Charles is also credited with creating the post of Hereditary Grand Falconer to look after his birds and until 1828 only members of the royal family and the Hereditary Grand Falconer were allowed to ride alongside the aviary in carriages – everyone else had to walk.

In 1848 Annette Meyers, an unemployed housemaid from Belgium, killed her lover, Henry Ducker of the Coldstream Guards, in Birdcage Walk. Ducker was an unpleasant character whose affection for his various girlfriends was in direct proportion to the amount of money with which they could provide him. He kept borrowing money from the out-of-work Annette on a never-fulfilled promise of marriage.

Desperately afraid she would lose Ducker to a rival who was lucratively employed in prostitution, Annette purchased a gun, shot Ducker, and surrendered to the authorities, denying nothing. Annette’s trial for wilful murder was of great interest to the public. Her love letters were read out in court, providing an indication of her infatuation and desperation, and there was some suggestion that Ducker may have infected her with a venereal disease. 

Annette was found guilty of wilful murder with a recommendation for mercy but she was sentenced to death and incarcerated in Newgate prison awaiting execution. Following petitions for her release, calls for mercy, and campaigns against capital punishment, her sentence was eventually commuted to imprisonment. After two years she was sent to Van Diemen’s Land, now known as Tasmania.

Brunswick Square in Bloomsbury was built in 1795 and named after Caroline Amelia Elizabeth of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel, known as Caroline of Brunswick, who travelled that year to England to marry her first cousin, the future King George IV. Some sources say it was so named as a compliment to to the reigning royal house of Hanover, as Brunswick in Hanover was their second capital city. This is International Women’s Day, so I say it was named after her.

The union was not a happy one: of the wedding night consummation of their marriage, George wrote, “it required no small [effort] to conquer my aversion and overcome the disgust of her person”. She, on the other hand, said that he was so drunk that he “passed the greatest part of his bridal night under the grate, where he fell, and where I left him”.

George was later to attempt to divorce Caroline and strip her of her title of Queen consort on the grounds of adultery; she was popular with the masses, however, and that effort failed. However, he did succeed in barring her from his coronation service at Westminster Abbey.

Number 79 Pall Mall bears a plaque on the site of the house occupied by Eleanor (Nell) Gwynne in the last 16 years of her life. Nell was (allegedly – Oxford and Hereford also lay claim to be her birthplace) born in one of Covent Garden’s sleazier streets, in a brothel run by her mother. She was orphaned after her father died in prison and her mother drowned in a drunken stupor.  Nell was one of King Charles II’s mistresses and, purportedly, his favourite, particularly as she did not try to dabble in politics, unlike some of his other mistresses. She was firm on one issue however – she was insistent that her child by Charles who, though the son of a king, was illegitimate and so had no rights under law, be given a title.

To ensure this, she dangled the child from a window and threatened to drop him until Charles finally gave in and said, “Nay, Nellie, pray spare the Earl of Burford.”

Pall Mall takes its name from a French game, paille-maille (also known as palla a maglio), mentioned as early as the reign of James I, who recommended the game for his eldest son, Prince Henry. The game was similar to croquet, involving a “wooden hammer set to the end of a long staff to strike a boule with”. Pall Mall was allegedly constructed by Charles II especially for the playing of this game.

Noel Street in Soho takes it name from Lady Elizabeth Noel who was married to Henry Bentinck, 1st Duke of Portland. Elizabeth’s father-in-law was Hans William Bentinck, Ist Earl of Portland and a friend of William III. The king gave a great deal of land in Soho to Bentinck and in the 1730s it was Lady Elizabeth who was responsible for developing much of the property. The nearby Marylebone area abounds with street names from the Bentinck family.

Just for the fun of it, let’s throw in Billingsgate, which is a market rather than a street. It was one of the water-gates of London that existed along with the seven main gates that were posterns in the London Wall fortification. Billingsgate is perhaps most closely associated with the fish market, and the cries of the vendors gave their name to an expression of vulgar language, as in swearing like a fishwife, particularly a Billingsgate fishwife. Billingsgate has its own special place in London’s history, as it was where the fire of London started.