From health and love to worship: London’s abstract noun streets

I forgot to mention in the last (Groundhog Day inspired) post that someone has already tackled the thorny issue of the name of Punxsutawney Phil’s home: Gobbler’s Knob. Which generally causes amusement in Britain and not in America. You can read more here on that issue.

But back to noun streets. The eagle-eyed among you will have noticed that the last post was limited to concrete nouns. That’s partly because they have better names and stories, and – full disclosure here – I had more pictures of those street signs. (And I have more information on them.)

I can offer you, however, a couple of abstract noun street names, including the Vale of Health in Hampstead, which was once marshy land and anything but healthy. According to Volume 9 of A History of the County of Middlesex, “The name the Vale of Health, recorded in 1801, may have originated as a euphemism which was exploited or as a new name invented in a deliberate attempt to change the image of the place.”

By the 19th century the area had become more fashionable; Leigh Hunt lived there and attracted a circle of literary friends including Byron and Shelley. DH Lawrence lived in the Vale, as did Edgar Wallace.

Building in the Vale was halted towards the end of the 19th century when the 1871 Act for the Preservation of the Heath decreed that development in the Vale could not encroach on the heath.

From health to love, or something like it: there is a Love Lane near London Wall, which – is so called, John Stow wrote candidly in his Survey of London, “of wantons.” Bawdy street names were not uncommon in early London, and you can read more about them here.

There were once other Love Lanes in the City of London (and there is still one in Greenwich), and a more innocent connotation was that the name referred to a sort of lovers’ lane where courting couples used to stroll.

Worship Street (one known as Hog Lane), has a name that, technically, is nothing to do with worship. There was once a merchant tailor called John Worshop who owned over six acres of land in the area. It is likely that the street was named for him, and then corrupted to its present form. Happily, though, the street contained an old foundry once used as a place of worship by John Wesley.

There is a Retreat Place in Hackney, which takes its name from almshouses. In 1812 Samuel Robinson founded and funded almshouses for twelve poor widows. The houses were called ‘The Widow’s Retreat’ and the street that ran past it was similarly named.

Along those lines, Asylum Road in Peckham takes its name from the Victuallers Asylum, built in the 19th century to aid distressed members of the Victuallers Trade or their wives.

Weird and wonderful street names of London

Yesterday I read a great blog post  by Fun London Tours about the City of London’s 10 most unusual street names. Nearly all of them have been included in this blog, or lined up to be so at some point,  so I thought today I would provide a companion piece by way of some more detail on some of the streets mentioned.

EAS_4029Knightrider Street: This street featured in this blog when I was writing about some of the streets I would be going through or near when I took part in the MoonWalk London 2014. The obvious explanation is that it is from knights riding to riding from the Tower Royal to jousting tournaments at Smithfield but there is more to it than that, with some spoilsports arguing that knightrider is not a word.  (And, Fun London Tours blog points out, “David Hasselhoff has his own little shrine in the adjacent Centrepage pub!”)

Friday StFriday Street: It may have taken its name from Frigdaeges, an Old English name, but most people plump for John Stow’s theory that it was “so called of fishmongers dwelling there and serving Friday’s market”. There was a time in Catholic England when eating meat on Friday was forbidden and, at least one meat eater was executed for that crime. Friday is, it seems, the only day of the week represented in London street names.

French Ordinary Court cropFrench Ordinary Court: Leading off another street unusual name (Crutched Friars), this small street was given its name because in the 17th century the Huguenots were allowed by the French Ambassador, who had his residence in Crutched Friars, to sell coffee and pastries. They also served fixed price meals; in those days such a meal was called an ‘ordinary’.

cock laneLove Lane: There’s no better way of putting it than to quote the inimitabel John Stow, who said bluntly that it was “so called of wantons”. Love, but with a price tag. There are many streets with names that have bawdy and that category could include Cock Lane, as Fun London Tours naughtily suggests.

Cock Lane could take its name from the fact that the only place where the City’s prostitutes could live; it may also have a less lewd (though bloody) explanation for its name. Cock Lane was, perhaps, most famous for its ghost.
Wardrobe Terrace crop

Wardrobe Place: Amazingly, what it seems: in 1359 a house belonging to Sir John Beauchamp was purchased by Edward II and became the storeroom for the royal clothing. The house was destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666 but the name lives on. The area was mentioned in Shakespeare’s will, when he bequeathed land near the Wardrobe to his daughter.

Cripplegate Street: This takes its name from one of London’s Roman city gates, supposedly thus named because when Edmund the Martyr’s body was brought through the gate in 1010, some cripples were miraculously cured. This theory has its detractors, who claim that the name comes from ‘crepul’ – a tunnel or covered way, which was constructed for the sentries there.

Mincing Lane cropMincing Lane: This Lane, with connections to Jimmy Choo and Cruella de Ville, takes its name from nothing to do with funny walks. The word derives from the Old English feminine of ‘monk’, and the name dates back to the 12th century. According to London historian John Stow, it was once “Mincheon lane, so called of tenements there sometime pertaining to the Minchuns or nuns of St Helens in Bishopsgate.”

EAS_4136St Mary Axe: This name involves an axe and a Saint Mary, and takes its name from the church of the same name, later combined with St Thomas Undershaft. Supposedly Maurius, father of King Cole – gave his daughter Ursula permission to travel to Germany with 11,000 virgins who were subsequently slain by an enraged Attila and his Huns.

EAS_4139With all due respect to the blog that inspired this particular post, it is hard to talk about St Mary Axe without mentioning another weird and wonderful City of London street name: Undershaft.

Crutched FriarsCrutched Friars: A relatively new name (the street was once called, less interestingly, Hart Street), it derives its current name from a holy order, the Crossed Friars, an Augustinian order who wore habits that were blue with, usually, a red cross on the back.

Hanging Sword Alley: This name can be traced back as early as 1564, when a large Tudor house was known by the sign of the Hanging Sword. The area was popular with fencing masters and the sign may have referred to this occupation. The alley was also known at one time by the sinister name of Blood Bowl Alley, after a 14th century inn, depicted in Plate 9 of Hogarth’s ‘Industry and Idleness’ series.

EAS_3921Of course, if we’re looking at gory street names in the City of London, a particular favourite is Bleeding Heart Yard.

Telling it like it is: bawdy London streets

Love Lane Greenwich cropLove Lane near London Wall is so called, John Stow wrote candidly in his Survey of London, “of wantons.” There is not much more that can be said, though some people theorize rather wistfully that it could have been a sort of lovers’ lane where courting couples used to stroll. (There is also a Love Lane in Greenwich; that may or may not have been named for the same reason.)

Even more unflinching was the original name of Grape Street, which was once Grope Lane and now, sadly, no longer exists. Early, non-euphemistic, forms of the name appear, as early as 1276, as ‘Gropecontelane’ and ‘Groppecountlane’. In Oxford, lanes of this name appeared as early as 1230. The name, says one source tactfully, is “an indecent one’. When it wasn’t changed completely, the name was altered to less drastic forms such as Grope Lane and Grape Lane.

(There is also a Grape Street, near High Holborn, named from a house that belonged to the leper hospital of St Giles ‘Le Vyne’. It is possible that a vineyard once stood on this spot as the area was particularly fertile and the vines were mentioned in the Domesday Book. The street was once called Vine Street.)

Stew Lane, just north of the Thames is not as appetizing as it may sound: a ‘stew’ or ‘hothouse’ was a brothel and, from the 12th century to the 17th, the banks of the Thames teemed with such houses. They tended to be on the south side but some – like this lane – were on the north bank. (One source says that this lane led down to the waterside embarkation point for women working in the Bankside brothels.)

The stews were licensed and regulated by the government to prevent any debauchery of the respectable wives and daughters of London and, says London historian John Stow, “for the repair of incontinent men to the like women”.

Some of the regulations governing the stews were that they could not be opened on holidays; that women of religion, or married women (presumably even if they were ‘incontinent’), could not work there; that men could not be enticed into them; that no woman could be “kept against her will that would leave her sin”; and that a woman could not “take money to lie with any man, but she lie with him all night till the morrow”.

Cardinal CapPretty much directly across the Thames from Stew Lane, Cardinal Cap Alley takes its name from one of the licensed stews of the Bankside area; they often had their names painted on the walls rather than on a hanging sign. These stews, which were licensed under strict regulations, were leased from the Bishops of Winchester, and the working women therein were known as ‘Winchester Geese’. (For more London animal connections in London streets, read our recent post here.)

Holland StreetOther streets with particularly bawdy connections include Holland Street, south of the river, which was named for a notorious procuress – the self-proclaimed Donna Britannia Hollandia. She rented the moated manor house of Paris Gardens and ran a ‘stew’ frequented by James I and his court (including George Villiers). Mother Holland was a force to be reckoned with: when during Charles I’s reign, there was an attempt by soldiers to storm the house, she waited until they were on the bridge before drawing it up and depositing the soldiers in the unpleasant waters of the moat.

Although not officially listed in many London street atlases, there is a Cuckold’s Point and the name is what it says. The point, at a sharp bend on the Thames in East London, was once marked by a pole, crowned with a set of horns, which delineated the boundary of land granted to a miller who had been cuckolded by King John.

The story goes that the miller returned home unexpectedly one day to find his beautiful wife disporting herself with the king. Not unnaturally, the fact that it was royalty in his bed did not stop the miller from being somewhat upset about the whole matter. In order to appease him, King John granted the miller as much land as he could see; the furthest spot was the point that bears the name.

There was, however, a catch (there often was with royal generosity back then): the king also granted the new landowner the privilege of an annual fair – but on the condition that, on the day of the fair, he should walk to the point wearing a pair of buck’s horns on his head. The miller’s jealous neighbours had to wrest some satisfaction from this downside to his newfound wealth: they dubbed the fair Horn Fair and gave the name of Cuckolds Point to the termination of the miller’s journey.