Metallic London streets from Brass Talley Alley to Silver Street

The revisitation of my Christmas lurgy has halted proceedings on this website for a while but I am now – I hope – beyond the lying on the couch bleating feebly stage and onto the coughing and sounding worse than I feel stage. At least there is a wider audience than my husband and the pets for the latter stage.

But I digress. On to London street names and the wonderful Brass Talley Alley. Thanks to the very interesting blog ‘View from the mirror’, I have learned where that name came from: something that has, for some time, been vexing me.

The abovementioned blog described a project called ‘Brass Tally Men: An Oral History of London’s Dock Workers’. This project, set up by educational charity digital:works, is an oral history focusing on the fascinating history of the people who worked on the docks of London from the 1930s up until the closing of the docks from the 1970s.

Another website, eastlondonhistory.com, has this to say: “”Before the Dock Labour Scheme was created in 1946, bringing with it at least some guarantee of pay, the dockers were each given a brass tally, oval in shape. They would hand this in when given a job for the day, and collect it again when given their pay. If they didn’t get a day’s work they would have to sign on at the local Labour Exchange, bearing their brass tally as proof.”

It all makes sense now. The trouble is, as I have mentioned before, in looking at the map again to see just where the alley is, I found a Needleman Street, a Poolman Street, and a Garter Way. Now I have to fight the urge to dash off and research them.

(Incidentally, apologies to whoever provided me with this photo of the Brass Talley Alley street sign; I can’t for the life of me find a credit for it.)

Instead, let’s have a quick look at some other metal street names, some of which are logical and others which are anything but.

There was once a Silver Street, which no longer exists, but was, says Stow, named from the silversmiths who lived there. Legal evidence, surviving from May 1612, shows that Shakespeare gave evidence in a lawsuit about a marriage dowry of £60. The evidence confirms his presence as a lodger at a house on Silver Street in the Jacobean period.

There is also a Silver Place in the West End, which may have been so named because it is not that far away from Golden Square.

Golden Square, on the other hand, is nothing to do with gold: the site upon which Golden Square stands was known as Gelding’s Cross in the early 17th century when the land was used for farming. Building work on the square was begun in the 1670s and, as it was designed for the gentry, a rather more refined name was needed.

Ironmonger Row, once largely inhabited by ironmongers, was built in the 18th century on land bequeathed to the Ironmongers Company in 1527 by Thomas Mitchell, ironmonger and citizen of London. There is also an Ironmonger Lane in EC2, which was known as ‘Ysmongeres Lane’ around the turn of the 12th century and was also the haunt of ironmongers. The Ironmongers Company had their original hall here until the 15th century, when they acquired buildings in Fenchurch Street and moved there, along with most of the ironmongers.

By way of contrast, there is Rust Square in Camberwell, which is nothing to do with metal, rusty or otherwise. It is, supposedly, named for George Rust, the Bishop of Dromore. Dromore is in Northern Ireland. Go figure.

It just occurred to me: I could include Leadenhall Street in this post. Leadenhall is basically as it sounds – from a grand mansion with a lead roof. The mansion, built by Sir Hugh de Neville, was eventually acquired by Dick Whittington, otherwise known as Sir Richard Whittington, Mayor of London, who then granted it to the City.

Virgins, churches, chickens, and a philanthropist

St Mary Axe plaque cropFollowing on from yesterday’s Moonwalk-themed story about Undershaft, we will take a fleeting glance at nearby St Mary Axe, which is covered in more detail here before we move on to Poultry.

The street takes its name from a church that was known in full as St Mary the Virgin, St Ursula and the Eleven Thousand Virgins. Apparently there was an axe there, which gave the church its shorter name.

The church was converted to warehouses after its suppression in the 16th century and the parish was united with that of St Thomas Undershaft.

EAS_4101Moving further west, by way of Leadenhall Street and Cornhill, we come to Poultry. This was once a London speciality street where 14th-century shoppers would go for their – yes, poultry. 

Poultry was once called Scalding Alley, says John Stow, from the poulterers who dwelt there and “their poultry, which they sold at their stalls, were scalded there. The street doth yet bear the name of the Poultry”.

Elizabeth Fry plaqueThere is a plaque in Poultry to commemorate the Quaker, prison reformer and philanthropist Elizabeth Fry. In 1800 Elizabeth (Betsy) Gurney married fellow Quaker Joseph Fry, a banker, and the couple moved to St Mildred’s Court just off Poultry, where they lived for nine years.

Mrs Fry, of an old Quaker family, was horrified at the conditions under which as many as 300 women and children could be packed into Newgate. She worked hard at improving conditions but was forced to give up philanthropy when her husband became bankrupt. Since 2001 Fry has been depicted on the reverse of Bank of England £5 notes.

Thomas Hood plaque
Photo: Openplaques.org

At number 22 Poultry was Dillys, the booksellers where Boswell’s Life of Johnson was published; Johnson had dined there with John Wilkes and found him to be “excellent company”.

Poultry was also the location of the “house where I was born” – the poet Thomas Hood, who penned the immortal lines “I remember, I remember, the house where I was born,” was born in a house at what is now 31.

Back to the Moonwalk: if you want to support Walk the Walk and its efforts on behalf of breast cancer charities, you can sponsor me by visiting my fundraising page here.