Sublime and ridiculous in London names: Bleeding Heart Yard and Cripplegate

It’s time for a reality check. I received another I-hope-it-was-a-gentle rebuke from reader MattF, who warned me against taking to heart some of the less likely explanations of why streets are called what they’re called. My aim is to entertain as well as inform, so I like to air as many views as I can find about street name derivations, but equally, MattF has a point so I’ll try to make it clear which theories are probably complete eyewash and which may be plausible.

On that note, I thought it might be fun to look again at some of the weirder street names I’ve come across, and some of the many theories behind those names.

Starting with where my pursuit of London street names began: Bleeding Heart Yard. Dickens helped make the yard famous: there is a chapter in Little Dorrit entitled ‘Bleeding Heart Yard’. “The opinion of the Yard,” said Dickens, “was divided respecting the derivation of its name. The more practical inmates abided by the tradition of a murder.”

The other inhabitants believed that the name came from a young woman was imprisoned by her father for not marrying the man he chose for her. She sighed and wasted away, murmuring, “Bleeding heart, bleeding heart, bleeding away.” Dickens, like MattF, said: “Neither party would listen to the antiquaries who delivered learned lectures in the neighbourhood, showing the Bleeding Heart to have been the heraldic cognizance of the old family to whom the property belonged.”

(Incidentally, one family name that is bandied about in the heraldic cognizance – distinctive emblem – as being the basis of the name is the Douglas family, as in Douglas motorcycles, which has a heart in its crest.)

There are other theories about the name, but the most dramatic – and least likely – is that a beautiful gypsy made a deal with the devil in order to be able to capture the heart of a rich lord. She did so, married him, and then lost her heart – literally – to Old Nick. He appeared unexpectedly at a ball one night and carried her off. As she was whisked through the air, her cloak fell to the ground in what is now Cloak Lane and one of her shoes fell in Shoe Lane. The revellers at the ball were revolted to discover a bleeding human heart in the courtyard.

“So who can doubt the legend?” asked a 19th-century writer who compiled a dictionary of London street names. “And yet those incredulous sceptics, who destroy our beautiful legends one by one, seek to explain the name by the assertion that it was originally Bleeding Hart Yard, a forgotten sign or family cognizance, and I am inclined to think they are right.”

I was also called up (sort of) on the last post for mentioning Newgate and ignoring Cripplegate. To be fair, there are a few London ‘gate’ names and I’ve covered them in various other posts. And even I couldn’t fit Cripplegate into the ‘new’ theme. But that’s another one with theories ranging from plausible to downright weird.

Before I start, let me quote MattF on the derivation of Cripplegate’s name: “…please don’t give any more oxygen to the nonsense that it’s named after cripples.”

Ok, so it’s not the real reason for the name. Here’s the theory anyway: allegedly, when Edmund the Martyr’s body was brought through the gate in 1010, some cripples were miraculously cured.

(Whether it’s relevant or not, Edmund is the patron saint of pandemics. Why do pandemics have a patron saint? Anybody out there know?)

MattF puts the proper explanation for the name very well, so over to him: “It was connected to the Barbican by a “crepel” – a covered tunnel or passage in Old English – and referred to as the Crepelgate back in the 11th century.”

Incidentally, there is a medieval church, St Giles-without-Cripplegate, which is so named because when it was built it was without (outside) the city wall. St Giles is the patron saint of lepers and cripples.

New year London names: from New Scotland Yard to Newgate

Well, loyal reader(s), it’s been a while. Long enough that it’s too far after Christmas to continue that theme (and I was coming to a bit of a dead end on that anyway). But it’s still sort of the New Year, so let’s take a quick look at ‘new’ names – that is, names with new in them.

New Scotland YardBut first a bit of a cheat with New Scotland Yard, which is a building rather than a street. And it isn’t even in Great Scotland Yard, which is what it was named for. That name came about because the Palace of Westminster, which no longer stands, once served as the main residence for the English monarchs –and a parcel of land belonging to the palace, including a house given by King Edgar to Kenneth III of Scotland in the 10th century, was reserved for royal Scottish visitors and their retinues.

Great Scotland YardIn 1829 the Metropolitan Police Force was formed and the new force (consisting of around 600 men, six of whom were discharged on the first day for being drunk) set up headquarters in Great Scotland Yard (Little and Middle had by then combined to become Whitehall Place). Scotland Yard (or the ‘Yard’ then became the name by which the police force was known.

From police to prisons, and Newgate, one of the original gates of London. (The others were Aldersgate, Aldgate, Bishopsgate, Cripplegate, Ludgate, and Moorgate.) Newgate was so named because it was new: in the 12th century, a new gate, built to replace the original Roman gate.

Newgate is perhaps best known for Newgate Prison, possibly one of the world’s most famous, and infamous prisons and the gatehouse was indeed used as a prison later in the 12th century. When the gate was rebuilt again in the 15th century, Dick Whittington (or, to give him his proper title, Richard Whittington, Lord Mayor of London) provided money for the prison to be extended.

The prison was eventually demolished to make way for the Central Criminal Courts, known as Old Bailey, taking their name from the street on which they stand). In the 18th century Newgate became not just a prison but the location of public executions: the gallows at Tyburn were moved to the prison in 1783 and prisoners no longer made the long journey west from Newgate to be executed.

EAS_3968From prisons to fetters, or manacles for prisioners. There is a Fetter Lane and a New Fetter Lane and on the corner of these two streets is a statue of John Wilkes, a journalist and member of the notorious Hellfire Club.

The word ‘fetter’ in this instance, however – you guessed it – is nothing to do with manacles. Many alternative spellings include faitor, fewter, felter, and faitour.

As the historian John Stow puts it, the lane was “so called of Fewters (or idle people) lying there, as in a way leading to gardens, but the same is now of latter years on both sides built through with many fair houses”. (The Old French word faitor meant a lawyer, and by the 14th century the reputation of that august profession had fallen so far into disrepute that the word was synonymous with idlers.)

The name could have derived from ‘felter’ – makers of felt also carried on their business in the lane, or from ‘faitour’ – a type of fortune teller prevalent in medieval and Elizabeth times. As well as all the iidlers, the area did have workers in the form of the armorers whose workshops were located there. and the name may have come from the lance vests worn on cuirasses (also known as fetters).

EAS_3905And finally, from lawyers to bankers: New Change was formerly Old Change, originally just Change (it became Old in 1293); it took its name from a buiEAS_4102lding where bullion was stored before being taken to the Mint to be coined. (There is also a Change Alley; that takes its name from the Royal Exchange, founded in 1565 by Sir Thomas Gresham to act as a centre of commerce for the city, and officially opened by Queen Elizabeth I.)


Ladies dancing and lords a-leaping in London’s streets

Continuing our theme of the 12 days of Christmas in London street names, let’s look at lords and ladies. There are various lady and lord so-and-so street names, but the most Christmassy is Noel Street, just south of Oxford Street.

The street takes its name from Lady Elizabeth Noel who was married to Henry Bentinck, 1st Duke of Portland. There is no hint anywhere as to whether she was prone to dancing; however, not only did she have seven children so she may not have had time, but her husband was one of the unfortunate people who lost vast sums of money in the South Sea Bubble, so she may not have been in the mood.

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; in the 1730s it was Lady Elizabeth who was responsible for developing much of the property, and the nearby Marylebone area abounds with street names from the Bentinck family.

Our ‘lord’ name is cheating, because it’s not a street name at all, but hopefully I will be forgiven a little artistic leeway. Lord’s Cricket Ground, one of London’s most famous landmarks, was built for lords by a Lord. That makes it kind of a double lord, and cricket certainly involves a lot of leaping.

Cricket was once considered suitable only for the elite, and originally the aristocracy played their manly sport in Islington. Eventually they tired of the commoners who turned up to watch the matches and one Thomas Lord was asked to provide a private ground.

The current Lord’s, on the site of what was once a duck pond, is the third iteration of that private ground: the first was in Marylebone, on the site of the current Dorset Square, and the second, briefly, was in Regent’s Park.

In case I need to redeem myself, there is a Lordship Place in Chelsea, near Cheyne Walk. It stands on what was the old Manor House belonging to the Lawrence family.

According to the admirable Gillian Bebbington, author of Street Names of London, it was, “the scene of the Manor Court, whose instruments of judgment and punishment were kept here: the duckingstool, stocks, whipping-post and lock-up”.

If there had been any ducks in the 12 Days of Christmas, I could have brought in both ducking stools and the former duck pond on which Lord’s Cricket Ground now stands.

Golden rings in London’s 12 days of Christmas street names

Most of the 12 days of Christmas deal with birds, but it’s a bit too soon to do birds again, since that started this whole blog post theme.

Golden SquareLet’s look at the golden rings instead, starting with Golden Square – partly because that’s featured in earlier posts, so is easy for me, and partly because it’s nothing to do with gold. The square stands upon the site of what was known as Gelding’s Cross in the early 17th century when the land was used for farming.

The site was once a plague pit: during the Great Plague there were times when the graveyards could not hold all the dead bodies and victims of the plague were dumped into large pits and communal graves, such as Bunhill Row.

There is also a Golden Lane; it was called Goldynglane and Goldynggeslane in the 14th century, and is probably derived from the name of someone responsible for building it. The Fortune Theatre stood here, a round wooden theatre modelled on the Globe and built in 1600 for Edward Alleyn and Philip Henslow (at a cost of £500). Playwrights represented there included Christopher Marlowe.

The theatre burned down in 1621 and was rebuilt in brick; the Puritans tried to close it down in 1642 but plays continued until the Ordinance of 1647-8, which suppressed playhouses completely. Soldiers dismantled it in 1649 and it was finally demolished in 1661.

Then, of course, we have Goldsmith’s Row and Goldsmith Street, which do take their name from goldsmiths. Goldsmith’s Row and Lombard street was where the goldsmiths plied their trade, but, according to Walter Thornbury in Old and New London, “In 1622 the traders of the Goldsmiths’ Company began to complain that alien traders were creeping into and alloying the special haunts of the trade, Goldsmiths’ Row and Lombard Street; and that 183 foreign goldsmiths were selling counterfeit jewels, engrossing the business and impoverishing its members.”

Piccadilly CircusOk, if you insist, we could try and fit the ‘ring’ bit of the golden rings in: how about Piccadilly Circus and Cambridge Circus? (Circuses were so named because they were circular.)

The former is named from a ruff-type collar, plenty more of which has been covered in earlier posts, and the latter served as the model for ‘The Circus’ in the John Le Carre novels.

Maids a-milking in London’s street names

EAS_4059Regular readers may feel this is kind of cheating: both Maiden Lane and Milk Street have been covered in earlier posts, but they fit nicely with the eight maids a-milking in our 12 days of Christmas in London streets.

Milk Street leads off Cheapside, which was an early shopping street. It was one of the busiest thoroughfares in London and the city’s main food market. The medieval grocery shopper would have gone there for staples such as bread, milk, honey, poultry, and fish, and the streets that lead off Cheapside were named for their specialities.

Sir Thomas More was born in Milk Street, as was Mrs Beeton (née Isabella Mayson), possibly, the original domestic goddess; she was the author of Beeton’s Book of Household Management, a bible of domestic information from Victorian times to the present. Despite her modern reputation, however she, however, was not a regular and a recipe for soup was the only recipe in the book that was hers – all the rest came from other sources.

Isabella also died very young – just short of her 29th birthday. She died of peritonitis and puerperal fever eight days after the birth of her son Mayson, her fourth child and only the second to survive infancy. (Some biographers believe that her husband Samuel contracted syphilis from a prostitute and passed it on to his wife; this, they believe, accounted for the fact that Isabella had several miscarriages; if so, perhaps the condition contributed to her death.)

EAS_3935Maiden Lane in Covent Garden, according to Disraeli (Isaac, not Benjamin), took its name from a statue of the Virgin Mary which once stood on the corner of the lane. However, it is more likely that the name actually derives from the ‘middens’ – dung heaps – that once proliferated in the area.

The artist JMW Turner was born in Maiden Lane; Benjamin Disraeli and Voltaire lived here, and apparently Edward
VII and Lily Langtry dined here.

EAS_3937More gruesomely, a celebrated actor of the 19th century, William Terriss, was murdered as he was entering the Adelphi Theatre through the stage door, located in Maiden Lane. His killer was a mentally unstable actor, Richard Archer Prince, who bore a grudge against Terriss for having him dismissed. Prince was found guilty but not responsible for his actions and was sent to Broadmoor where he lived the rest of his life.

Incidentally, there is a Maiden Lane in Manhattan’s financial district (apparently unrelated to dung heaps) that inspired a 1936 crime film, 15 Maiden Lane.

Seven swans a swimming in London’s streets

I am feeling Christmassy, and I have on The Mighty Jamma’s ‘Reggae Pan Christmas’ to soothe the writing process. (If you think you are sick of Christmas music, try listening to steel band versions.) I wasn’t quick enough off the mark to think of doing an advent calendar of street names, but then I thought of doing 12 street names of Christmas and seven swans a-swimming seemed as good a start as any.

IMG_2569In addition, following on from the bird name streets, one reader rebuked me gently, at least I hope it was meant to be a gentle rebuke. “One bird that surely deserves a mention is the swan with Swan Lane and Great Swan Alley in the City,” said MattF.

As if in agreement, the swans around here have been gathering of late and I have been watching as many as 30 swans at a time swimming up the river. If anyone knows about swan habits, I’d be grateful for any insights. It’s fascinating to watch the dynamics of the group: who’s in an out of favour, who is being chased away from the group and then allowed back, why the youngster is being ostracized…

But I digress. MattF was absolutely right: apart from mentioning Cygnet Street, I completely omitted the swan. In my defence, there have been previous posts with swans, though they largely focus on pub names, such as the Swan with Two Necks and a boat race.

So, with apologies to swans and thanks to MattF, here we go.

To revisit briefly the boat race, the connection there is to Swan Walk in Chelsea; the walk takes its name from a tavern sign; the swan was a common sign for inns, particularly waterside inns. This Swan was the finishing post for the Doggett Coat and Badge race.

Great Swan AlleyAnd you learn something new every day: I’ve been looking into the race some more and I was so focused on Swan Walk that I missed the fact that the race originally ran from a Swan Inn at London Bridge to the Swan Inn in Chelsea. (Some sources refer to them both as the Old Swan.)

Whatever their names, the inns are gone but the course has remained the same since 1715. The Swan Inn, or Old Swan, at London Bridge gave its name to Swan Lane. The Fishmongers’ Company is headquartered near Swan Lane, and the website gives the history of the Coat and Badge race.

Another thing about Swan Walk is that it is, apparently, mentioned by Pepys in his diary. A lovely snippet that I have been able to find only in one source (Gillian Bebbington, Street Names of London) is a reference to the fact that Pepys went there with his wife and their friend Mrs Knipp and his wife was “out of humour, as ever when that woman is by”.

It seems that all the swan street take their names from inns, so named either from the bird itself, or referring to coats of arms in which it featured, such as those of Henry VIII and Edward III.

Black swans also gave their name to inns; the black swan was considered a rare bird and the name may have been a self-promoting reference to the landlord being a rare bird. There is a Black Swan Yard in Southwark.

Great Swan Alley took its name from an old inn called the White Swan; there were once a Great and Little Swan Alley, but they were much curtailed by the building of Moorgate Street.

There are other swan streets in London, including Swan Street, SE1; Swan Passage, E1; Swan Road, SE16; and, of course, Cygnet Street, E1.

One last thing about swans: after watching all the swans on the river I wondered what the collective noun is for them. There are many of them, none appearing to be the definitive term. You can choose from ballet, bank, bevy, drift, eyrar, flight (in flight), flock, gaggle, gargle, game, herd, sownder, squadron, team, wedge (in flight), whiteness, and whiting.

But my favourite, considered by some sources to be ‘fantastical’, is a lamentation of swans. There is something about the word ‘lament’. Years ago, in a Chinese restaurant in Oxfordshire (or maybe it was Buckinghamshire) I had to order the chef’s special called ‘Lamentable Prawns’. I still don’t why they were called that as they were delicious. Maybe the chillies in them were supposed the diner weep.

London’s bird-related street names, from Cock Lane to Wild Goose Drive

Birdcage WalkI was driving in the lovely Forest of Dean area today, and I saw signs for a Sparrow Dive and Lark Rise (to Cinderford, maybe?), which seemed rather fitting, given yesterday’s Wren-related post. Guess what? That made me think of bird-themed London streets and, oh, yes, there are many.

(Incidentally, the name Wren does come from the bird: according to the surname database, many early English surnames derived from nicknames bestowed because of a perceived resemblance to various creatures. “The nickname ‘Wren’, derived from the Olde English pre 7th Century word ‘wrenna’ or ‘wraenna’, in Middle English ‘wrenne’, was probably used of a small, busy and quick-moving person.” )

Cock HillTo start with, we have Bird in Bush Road, Bird in Hand Court, Bird Street, and Birdcage Walk. Bird Street takes its name from Thomas Bird, who built the street in 1763, while Bird in Bush Road comes from a local field name, and Bird in Hand is from an old inn sign.

Birdcage Walk near Buckingham Palace is the site of an aviary started by James I and enlarged by Charles II (though some sources give Charles the credit for establishing it). It was also the site of a royal cockpit used for the grisly purposes of cock fighting.

Cockspur Street signThis deplorable ‘sport’ also gave us Cock Lane and Cockspur Street. Cock Lane probably took its name from the fact that it was the site of a breeding ground for fighting cocks. Far more interesting, however, are the facts that it also housed a famous (but fraudulent) ghost, it was where the Great Fire of London halted, and it was, in the Middle Ages, the only place where the City’s prostitutes could live.

Cockspur Street is so named because the spurs with which the birds were equipped to ensure even greater flow of blood were made and sold there. Cock Hill may have taken tis name from some connection with cock fighting, but it has a big state of a ram, so who knows? It is, however, part of the Middlesex Street Conservation Area. Middlesex Street being, of course, Petticoat Lane.

EAS_4114From cocks to hens and chickens, which takes us to Hen and Chicken Court off Fleet Street, named after a tavern called the Hen and Chicken. Hen and chicken were terms for pewter pots used to hold alcohol; they were also symbolic in Christian art of God’s providence, and therefore made a useful image for signs.

A particularly delightful bird street name is Wild Goose Drive (connected to Swallow Close). Although the term ‘wild goose chase’ now means a fruitless or absurd mission, it originally implied an erratic course. The drive is indeed, not straight, which may have suggested the name.

EAS_3977Some of the many other bird street names are Cygnet Street, Dove House Gardens, Dove Road, Drake Street, Duck Lane, Eaglet Place, Emu Road, Falcon Lane, Finch Lane, Goose Yard, Heron Road, Ibis Lane, Lark Row, Magpie Alley, Mallard Way, Nightingale Avenue, Partridge Green, Peacock Street, Pigeon Lane, and Raven Row.

(I could squeeze Chicksand Street and Heneage into this category, which is cheating even by my standards but there is a bird connection and we’ll look at that another time.)