In honour of International Women’s Day: from Fanny Burney to Phillis Wheatley

As it is International Women’s Day today, I’d thought I revisit briefly some of the women who have appeared in this blog by virtue of a connection, however tenuous, with London and its street names.

Let’s start with Phillis Wheatley, who was the first published African-American female poet. Born in West Africa and taken to the US in 1761, she was bought by a wealthy Boston merchant and tailor John Wheatley (and given his name as was the custom of the time). Phillis was schooled by Wheatley’s daughter Mary and accompanied his son Nathaniel to London, where she had an audience with the Lord Mayor of London and met with other significant members of British society.

The Boston publishers of the 18th century did not want to be associated with a book written by a slave so her work Various Subjects, Religious and Moral was published by a company based in Aldgate.

Margaret Cavendish (born Margaret Lucas and later the Duchess of Newcastle), who was born in 1623, was a poet, philosopher, essayist, and playwright who had her works published under her own name, unusual for women of the time. She wrote The Blazing World, one of the earliest examples of science fiction, she was an early opponent of animal testing, and she argued philosophy and science with the great minds of the time.

One of Margaret’s brothers, John Lucas, was an original member of the Royal Society and, in 1667, Margaret asked permission to attend a session of the  Society. This request caused a great deal of argument and dissatisfaction, but was eventually granted, and she became the first woman to attend a session. (The Royal Society, which was once based in Crane Court, was founded in 1660, but women were not permitted by statute to become fellows until 1945.)

Fanny Burney, later Madame D’Arblay, was an extraordinary woman; she was a talented and gifted – and largely self-taught – 18th century writer, but she should also go down in history as a woman of huge courage. Fanny was a breast cancer survivor and wrote the earliest known patient’s perspective of a mastectomy – in her case, performed without anaesthetic.

Fanny married Alexandre-Jean-Baptiste Piochard D’Arblay on 28 July 1793, relatively late in life. Her father did not attend the wedding, having expressed disapproval of his daughter marrying a penniless foreigner. The couple remained happily married and had one son.

There is memorial window to her at Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey, and London’s oldest surviving plaque for a woman was erected in 1885 at her residence in Mayfair’s Bolton Street. According to English Heritage, “It is a sign of the times in which it was made that its inscription gives greater prominence to her married name – Madame D’Arblay – than to the one by which posterity knows her.” There is also a D’Arblay Street, and Fanny lived in Half Moon Street.

Lola Montez, universally described as an adventuress, also lived in Half Moon Street, where she was arrested for bigamy in 1849. Lola was born Marie Dolores Eliza Rosanna Gilbert in Limerick, Ireland. She later claimed to be Spanish, adopted the name Lola Montez, and became a dancer whose dancing apparently involved more enthusiasm than talent. Her most renowned dance was the Tarantula, in which she searched for an imaginary spider in her clothes.

Lola is perhaps better known for her lovers, among the more famous of whom was Ludwig, King of Bavaria, who was dominated by the strong-willed Lola and became a strong political force. Her meddling in politics sparked off riots that eventually led to her banishment and the king’s abdication. Another famous lover was the equally temperamental Franz Liszt.

Mary Frith, otherwise known as Moll Cutpurse, was born around 1584 and lived and died in Fleet Street. She was described by the Newgate Calendar as “A famous Master-Thief and an Ugly, who dressed like a Man, and died in 1663”. She is considered to have been, at least in part, inspiration for Daniel Defoe’s book Moll Flanders.

As Moll Cutpurse the pickpocket, she was successful and made a great deal of money. Eventually, a spell in various prisons, and having her hand burned (a punishment for theft) four times, she took to highway robbery instead. When she grew tired of, or nervous about, stealing, Moll turned to a variety of activities, including fencing stolen goods and running a bawdy house.

Mary, or Moll, died of dropsy when she was in her seventies, was interred in St Bridget’s churchyard, and it is believed that John Milton wrote her epitaph, though the headstone was destroyed in the Great Fire of London.

Phoebe Hessel, who gives her name both to Amazon Street and Hessel Street, is another woman who was famous for dressing as a man; in her case she disguised her gender to enlist as a man in the 5th Regiment of Foot, supposedly to be with her lover, Samuel Golding. She hid her secret successfully even from her comrades-in-arms, that is, until Golding was wounded and invalided home. Phoebe then revealed her secret to the wife of the commanding officer; once her secret was out, she was discharged and returned to the UK where she married Golding and bore nine children.

On Golding’s death, Phoebe moved to Brighton where she married William Hessel and became something of a local character. The then Prince Regent, later George IV, granted Phoebe a small pension and invited her to his coronation parade. She died in 1821, at the alleged age of 108 and was buried in the parish churchyard with honours.

follow her lover into battle, and served overseas as a man, having was later a local character in Brighton, becoming a favourite of George IV, Price Regent and living to the ripe old age of 108.

Lady Elizabeth Hatton provides one of the many, many theories behind the name of Bleeding Heart Yard: she was the basis of a legend about a beautiful gypsy who made a deal with the devil in order to be able to capture the heart of a rich lord. The devil then appeared unexpectedly at a ball one night and carried her off, after which revellers at the ball were revolted to discover a bleeding human heart in the courtyard.

Elizabeth, who died in 1646, was indeed a woman to inspire legends. The young and beautiful (and rich) woman was the toast of 17th-century London society; her Annual Winter Ball in Hatton Garden was one of the highlights of the London social season, and invitations were much sought after. Her suitors were many and varied, including Sir Francis Bacon and Sir Edward Coke.

Coke won Elizabeth’s heart – possibly to his detriment, because the two quarrelled virtually throughout their long marriage. Elizabeth retained the Hatton name and the couple lived in separate houses for much of their marriage. There were indeed rumours of Elizabeth being carried off by the devil – after defying him to do so if she could not open the door to the wine cellar which thwarted the efforts of her servants.

Another real woman to provide a theory behind a London street name (in this case, La Belle Sauvage Yard) is Pocahontas, a Native American who was captured by the English during Anglo-Indian hostilities in 1613, and held for ransom. During her captivity, she converted to Christianity, took the name Rebecca, and chose to remain with the English. In April 1614, she married tobacco planter John Rolfe in what is the first recorded inter-racial marriage in North American history.

The Rolfes travelled to London to seek investment for their tobacco farm, and the couple became celebrities. When the couple set sail to return to Virginia, Pocahontas became ill, died at the age of 21, and was buried in Gravesend.

The printing works of Cassell, Petter and Galpin were based at one point in the yard, and Pocahontas became the symbol for what became today’s publishing company of Cassell’s. There was once a statue of Pocahontas in Red Lion Square, commissioned by the company when it moved there.

Engineers, journalists, and Moll Cutpurse

Fleet StreetThis day in London history: 2 January 1818 saw the birth of the Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE). Three young engineers, Henry Robinson Palmer, James Jones, and Joshua Field, kicked off with a meeting in Fleet Street’s Kendal Coffee House. However, it was not until two years later, when Thomas Telford was appointed president, that the institution began to make a name for itself. Telford increased membership and obtained a Royal Charter for the ICE in 1828. He remained president until his death.

Fleet Street in 1890

Fleet Street has, over the years, been famous for many and varied reasons. For instance, London’s first public lavatory and pillar box were in Fleet Street and the pub, Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese, is a landmark in its own right. There has been a pub on that spot since 1538.

The street itself was named for the Fleet River, which has nothing to do with speed: it comes from an Anglo-Saxon word ‘fleot’ meaning a creek or tidal inlet. Although it still flows, the Fleet is now underground and is used as a sewer – a function that it has performed since 14th-century butchers used it for cleaning out entrails and others took up the habit by dumping refuse into the stream.

Fleet Street was one the heart of the newspaper trade, and the term is still used in that context, though it is a long time since newspaper offices were all headquartered there. The associations go back to Wynken de Worde (and is there a better name for a man who was a printer and publisher?), who worked with William Caxton, popularized the printing press in England, and had an office here in 1500.

EAS_4004There is a plaque, at the Ludgate Circus end of Fleet Street, which commemorates Edgar Wallace, Reporter, born London 1875, died Hollywood 1932: “Founder member of the Company of Newspaper Makers. He knew wealth and poverty yet had walked with kings and kept his bearings. Of his talents he gave lavishly to authorship but to Fleet Street he gave his heart.”

On the shadier side of the Fleet Street associations (though many may feel that journalism is shady enough), the street was once famous for its illegal marriages and for its prison, which dates back to the time of the Norman Conquest, was rebuilt several times, and was finally closed in 1842 and demolished in 1846.

Moll Cutpurse title page
Mary Frith depicted on the title page of The Roaring Girl

One of Fleet Street’s more colourful (and shady) characters was Mary Frith, otherwise known as Moll Cutpurse, who lived and died in Fleet Street. Born around 1584, she is described by the Newgate Calendar as “A famous Master-Thief and an Ugly, who dressed like a Man, and died in 1663”. She is considered to have been, at least in part, inspiration for Daniel Defoe’s book Moll Flanders. She was also the inspiration for two plays, only one of which survived: The Roaring Girl.

The young Mary, described as, basically, a tomboy, was bored with the traditional girls’ pastimes and occupations: “She could not endure that sedentary life of sewing or stitching; a sampler was as grievous to her as a winding sheet; and on her needle, bodkin and thimble she could not think quietly, wishing them changed into sword and dagger for a bout at cudgels.” She would also fight with boys and as often as not beat them.

Trepanning engraving
A 16th-century depiction of trepanning

Her uncle, unable to restrain this undesirable behaviour, apparently planned to have her trepanned (where a hole is drilled in the skull to relieve pressure on the brain) aboard a ship bound for New England. She jumped ship and swam back to shore. Mary grew into a “lusty and sturdy wench” who often dressed in men’s clothing (though, unlike Phoebe Hessel, she made no attempt to pretend to be a man) and, eventually, “entered herself into the Society of Divers, otherwise called file clyers, cutpurses or pickpockets”.

As Moll Cutpurse the pickpocket, she was successful and made a great deal of money. Eventually, a spell in various prisons, and having her hand burned (a punishment for theft) four times, she took to highway robbery instead. A good Royalist, Moll targeted only followers of Oliver Cromwell. When she grew tired, or nervous about, stealing, Moll turned to a variety of activities, including fencing stolen goods and running a bawdy house or, as the Newgate Calendar puts it succinctly, “To get money, Moll would not stick out to bawd for either men or women; insomuch that her house became a double temple for Priapus and Venus, frequented by votaries of both sorts.”

Moll died of dropsy when she was in her seventies, was interred in St Bridget’s churchyard, and it is believed that John Milton wrote her epitaph, though the headstone was destroyed in the Great Fire of London.