The long and short of London’s streets: from Gandalf’s Grapes to Pepys’s coach

Grapes pubHere are two tenuously connected stories (and there will be a bearing on London streets, I promise).

First, in the 80s I worked for an estate agent (a shameful thing in the 80s; the only people worse then than estate agent were the people, like me, who marketed them); when Docklands was up and coming most press releases about the area mentioned the fact that Ian McKellen lived there.

Far more recently, I was reading a story about a theft of vegetables from the Grapes pub, owned by Sir Ian McKellen, aka Gandalf, and located in Narrow Street. The pub was the model for the Six Jolly Fellowship-Porters tavern in Dickens’ Our Mutual Friend, described as “a tavern of a dropsical appearance”. All that, naturally, made me think about the streets that have names related to length, starting with Narrow Street, so named because – surprise! – it is.

Limehouse was once a centre for world trade, being as it was a good landing place for ships. The area takes its name not from the ‘limeys’, or sailors who would have been much in evidence there, but from the lime kilns Shorts context 2used for making pottery.

(Incidentally, another historic pub in the street in the street, now, alas, closed and a private residence, was the House They Left Behind, so called because it was the only building left standing after bombing during World War II.)

From Narrow Street to Broad Yard. Which isn’t. In 1865 it was described by a local historian, William Pinks, who wrote a History of Clerkenwell, as “a nest of squalid human kennels and fever dens, with reeking dust-heaps before the doors – places without light or ventilation”. It was still, Pinks went on to say, broader than its neighbour, Frying Pan Alley, which was only two feet six inches wide at one point: “there not being room in it to get a full sized coffin out without turning it on edge”, Pinks tells us helpfully.

From width to length, we can start with ‘short’ streets, of which there are a few, including Short Street, Shorter Street, and Short’s Gardens. Short’s Gardens, near Seven Dials, was named for William Short who acquired land here in 1590 and Short Street was named for a 19th-century carpenter, Samuel Short, who built the street. I regret to say that I have yet to discover the reason behind the name of Shorter Street, but presumably it was shorter than something else. Shorter Street

And on to Long Acre, which was formerly a plot of land called ‘The Elms’ or ‘Seven Acres’ and belonging to the monks of Westminster Abbey. The name, as with Bow Street, comes from the shape of the land, which was long and narrow. Its present name dates back to 1612 and the street itself was first laid out in 1615.

The street became a fashionable place to live, and one of its residents was Oliver Cromwell, who lived there from 1637 to 1643.The aristocrat and writer Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, who was baptised at St. Paul’s Church in Covent Garden, also lived there.

Long Acre was also key to some important industries: it was once a centre for coach makers, one of whose customers in 1668 was Samuel Pepys, and it was later the home of Merryweather & Sons, builders of steam fire engines and steam tram engines.

Jane Austen, Oliver Cromwell, and a notorious pickpocket

16 December in London’s history: Jane Austen was born on this day in 1775. One of the most widely-read authors in English history, Austen spent her early life in Hampshire, moving to Bath and later Southampton with her family.

Austen did, however, visit London on occasion to visit her brother Henry, who was also her literary agent. One of the places she would have stayed was Henry’s residence in Hans Place, Knightsbridge. Hans Place was named after Hans Sloane, who founded the British Museum and also brought cocoa to England.

Also on this day in London’s history, Oliver Cromwell was appointed as appointed as Lord Protector of England, Scotland and Ireland. There are many London associations with Cromwell, including Whitehall and Long Acre, where he lived; Cripplegate, where he was married; Tyburn, where his body underwent a mock execution on the 12th anniversary of the beheading of Charles I; and Red Lion Square, where his remains were reputed have been interred briefly before that mock execution.

Other Cromwell connections include Horseferry Road, where he is supposed to have taken the ferry; and Fleet Street, where the pickpocket Moll Cutpurse targeted Cromwell supporters.

Steam engines, Dickens, and television

Today’s post follows on from yours truly having read and enjoyed Rivers of London, Ben Aaronovich’s delightful and quirky novel. One area that features heavily in the book is Covent Garden, in particular Long Acre, so let’s take a brief look at them. Covent Garden (or the convent garden) was an area of seven acres of land that once belonged to the Abbots of Westminster and may have been used for both of the seemingly at odds purposes of kitchen garden and burial place.

The first purpose seems obvious from the name; the second was presumed following the 19th-century discovery of human bones. Part of the Abbots’ land was Long Acre; this, like Bow Street, was named for its shape, which was long and narrow. It was originally called The Elms, Elm Close, and then The Seven Acres, and an avenue of tall elms was reported to have stood on the line taken by the current road.

Building began on Long Acre in the early 17th century, and, like the Covent Garden area in general, the street became a fashionable place to live. One of its residents was Oliver Cromwell, who lived there from 1637 to 1643.

The aristocrat and writer Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, who was baptised at St. Paul’s Church in Covent Garden, also lived there; according to a newspaper of 1731, “A few days ago the Right Hon. the Lady Mary Wortley Montague set out from her house in Covent Garden for the Bath”.

Long Acre was also key to some important industries: it was once a centre for coach makers, one of whose customers in 1668 was Samuel Pepys, and it was later the home of Merryweather & Sons, builders of steam fire engines and steam tram engines. St Martin’s Hall, a theatre with an entrance in Long Acre, is where Charles Dickens made his first appearance as a public speaker; he appeared on behalf of the Great Ormond Street Hospital for children.

More recently, the first television broadcast in Great Britain was made from Long Acre on 30 September 1929. It was a triumphant moment for John Logie Baird, after experimenting with a television set that consisted of projection lamps in an old biscuit tin and a motor in a tea chest.