London’s saintly names: from Catherine Wheel Alley to St Mary Axe

EAS_4059A while ago, this blog featured a religious-themed post, in which I made the brash statement that, “There are too many streets with churches, cathedrals, temples, and saints in their names for me to go into them here.”

As ever, the readers of this blog make it what it is, and @MattF’s recent comment regarding last week’s post was no exception: “Saint Lawrence Jewry (different church, same saint) has a griddle as a weathervane to signify the manner of Saint Lawrence’s death. Perhaps a future post could look at saints?”

That’s a very good idea, so I shall now eat my words, take a look now at some of the saint streets that have graced this blog and, depending on how that goes, maybe seek out some more in the future.

So let’s start with the above-mentioned church of St Lawrence Jewry. Although it is located in Gresham Street, it is near the former medieval Jewish ghetto, which was centred on the street named Old Jewry – hence the second part of the name. It is one of London’s many buildings that was destroyed in the Great Fire of London and rebuilt by Christopher Wren.

The parish was united with that of St. Mary Magdalen, Milk Street, which was not rebuilt. Milk Street was one of the medieval market streets of London, so probably where milk was sold and Gresham Street takes its name from Thomas Gresham, a merchant and financier. By happy coincidence, Sir Thomas More, who was born in Milk Street, preached in the older church of St Lawrence Jewry.

More himself is considered a saint by the Catholic church; he, like St Lawrence, also had a quip for his executioner (having been sentenced to death after annoying). When he mounted a dilapidated and shaky scaffold, he said to the attending official, “I pray you, Mr Lieutenant, see me safe up and for my coming down, I can shift for myself.”

Before we leave Old Jewry, here is another connection with a saint: Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, also known as Thomas à Becket and later a saint and a martyr, was baptised in the church of Becket was baptised in St Mary Colechurch at the southern end of Old Jewry.

EAS_4075Becket was born at the Cheapside end of Ironmonger Lane, known as ‘Ysmongeres Lane’ around the turn of the 12th century and 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.

On the subject of the recent nautical-themed post, @oldmapman mentioned that the symbol for the parish of St Clement Danes is an anchor and @MattF followed up by saying that the anchor symbolism comes from St Clement having supposedly been martyred by being tied to an anchor and thrown overboard.

St Clement Danes is located on Strand, which takes its name from the Anglo-Saxon for shoreline. So a double nautical connection. Incidentally, the Danes bit comes from (this is one of a few theories) the idea that in the 9th century the Danes colonized the village of Aldwych on the river between the City of London and the future site of Westminster. At the time, half of England was Danish and London was on the dividing line between the English and the Danes.

EAS_4133Although it has been featured a few times in this blog, how can we have a saint theme without St Mary Axe? Boringly, some consider the name to have come from a shop with the sign of an axe. But what fun is that? Much better is that the name comes from the church of St Mary the Virgin, St Ursula and the Eleven Thousand Virgins (converted to warehouses after its suppression in the 16th century).

An ancient king of England – Maurius, father of King Cole – gave his daughter Ursula (presumably King Cole’s sister) permission to travel to Germany with her large and chaste retinue (the aforementioned 11,000 virgins) who were then beheaded by Attila and his Huns. Using axes. Apparently an axe was once stored in the church, and gave it the less cumbersome name of St Mary Axe.

Tooley StreetTooley Street is a corruption of St Olave’s Street – which is how it was recorded at the end of the 16th century; it then became St Tooley’s Street and later Towles Street. St Olave, or Olaf, was king of Norway and later became a saint. Before his canonization, however, as king of Norway he was at war with the aforementioned colonizing Danes.

The story goes that in 1014 Olaf’s fleet, on its way up the Thames, was stopped at the heavily Danish-fortified London Bridge. Olaf had his ships covered with protective wicker work, moved in close to the bridge, attached ropes to the piles and sailed off, bringing the whole thing down. It is, unfortunately, possible that this story is not entirely true. However, it sounds good and it is also considered by some to be the basis for the nursery rhyme ‘London Bridge is falling down’.

Catherine Wheel 2Catherine Wheel Alley takes its name from a once-popular inn sign. (During the time of the Puritans, when overtly religious symbols were frowned on, most landlords changed the name to the Cat and Wheel.)

The Catherine Wheel, adopted as part of the arms of the Worshipful Company of Turners’ Company, was a representation of the martyrdom of St Catherine of Alexandria, a Christian virgin, who was martyred in the early 4th century.

Despite the tradition of the Catherine wheel, she was not actually tortured on a wheel, though was the plan of the emperor Maxentius. He was enraged by her refusal to marry him and condemned her to death on a spiked breaking wheel but, at her touch, the wheel was miraculously destroyed. Not to be thwarted in his evil plan, Maxentius finally had her beheaded.

Barley Mow Passage takes its name, some say, from from a relatively comment inn sign – ‘mow’ in this case is a heap, and barley is a major ingredient of beer. Others, however, think that it is a corruption of Bartholomew: the land in the area once belonged to the priory of St Bartholomew. The Priory Church of Saint Bartholomew the Great is London’s oldest surviving church and it is located in Cloth Fair.

From the 12th century to the 19th century a three-day fair – Bartholomew Fair – was held in the Smithfield area; money charged on tolls for goods was a source of income for the priory of St Bartholomew. The fair was, early on, essentially a trade fair for the woollen and drapery industries, with Italian and Flemish cloth merchants.

Bartholomew Fair gradually attracted more and more people, and soon the speciality of cloth was virtually overlooked. Unfortunately, as was not uncommon with many fairs, Bartholomew Fair degenerated into a riotous occasion. By the early 19th century, pickpockets and brawlers dominated, and the fair was discontinued in 1855. (41 Cloth Fair is one of the only houses in the City to have escaped the flames and lays claim to being the oldest London house in existence.)

There is a Bolt Court, which takes its name from the rebus of the Bolton family, who owned a great deal of local property. The 16th-century Prior William Bolton was one of those who did a great deal to restore the nearby church of St Bartholomew: he installed the oriel window (supposedly so that he could keep an eye on the monks).

The rebus is a device once commonly used to denote names by the pictorial representation of words and the Bolton rebus was a birdbolt (a short blunt arrow used to kill birds without piercing them) through a tun (a large barrel or fermenting vat). There is still an example of this rebus in the church.

One last saint reference – there are many more, so this theme can be revised several more times if required or desired – can go to St Peter. Cross Keys was a popular tavern sign (there is a Cross Keys Close in Marylebone), deriving from Christian heraldry as the keys of St Peter (crossed keys appear on the papal arms), or the keys to heaven.

The sign of the crossed keys was once used for one of the Bankside brothels, and there was once a Cross Keys tavern in Wood Street, where the young Dickens was sent on his arrival in London.

The close in Marylebone may have been named from an inn that once stood there; it may also have been named in view of the fact that a carpenter called Philip Keys built the close in the late 18th century.

Poetry, loyalty, and dancing on graves

I read a lovely article today about Joseph Grimaldi and being able to dance on his grave (or an artwork representation of it) in Pentonville Road. The grave itself is Grade II listed, but a memorial to Grimaldi was created by artist Henry Krokatsis.

The concept of dancing on a grave brings us back both to Marylebone, and to Camberwell, by way of one of my favourite stories about Robert and his loyalty to his wife and fellow poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning. And if it’s not true, it should be.

Apparently Edward Fitzgerald, a critic and also a poet, famous for his translation of ‘The Rubayiat of Omar Kayyam’, once wrote disparagingly about Elizabeth’s poetry, including the rather tasteless remark that her death was something of a relief to him.

Browning, who read the article some years later after Fitzgerald’s own death, travelled to Suffolk for the sole purpose of dancing upon Fitzgerald’s grave.

But back to Marylebone and Camberwell: on Wednesday we visited the church in Marylebone where the couple were married. Elizabeth lived with her family Marylebone’s Wimpole Street prior to her marriage. The street takes its name from the Cambridgeshire seat of the Harley family, who owned land in the area. (And of course, also gave their name to Harley Street, but that’s for another time.)

Camberwell? Oh, yes, Rainbow Street, SE5 retains the name of the earlier Rainbow Lane that led to the manor house of the Dovedales, called Rainbow House. Part of the estate included Rainbow Cottage, which is where Browning was born. But why Rainbow I don’t know, so any light that can be shed on that would be gratefully received.

Oh, and Pentonville Road? From Henry Penton, a lawyer and landowner of the area; his descendant of the same name laid out the land for development in the 18th century.

Marylebone and the church by the stream

Following on from Monday’s post about Grotto Passage in Marylebone, and with a diversion for St Patrick’s Day, let’s go back to Marylebone and its name.

Marylebone takes its name from St Mary’s, an old local parish church of the area, which replaced the original church of St John of Tyburn. In the 14th century, violent criminals haunted parts of Marylebone and the local parishioners at the church became so distressed at the fact that their little church was continually broken into, robbed,and vandalized, that they petitioned the Bishop of London, Robert de Braybroke, to let them move their church to a safer area.

The new church of St Mary’s, less than a mile away from the old site, and located near the Tyburn river (from teoburna, or boundary stream), was known as St Mary by the bourne, or St Mary-le-Bourne, which eventually became Marylebone.

The original church no longer exists but there is a ‘Garden of Peace’ on its site, with plaques commemorating many famous resident of, and visitors to, the area. Among these was Charles Wesley, brother of John Wesley, who founded the modern Methodist church; there is a monument erected there to mark the site of his original gravestone.

George Stubbs, the 17th-century artists known for his paintings of horses, and Edmond Hoyle, card expert and author of books on card games – hence the expression ‘according to Hoyle’ – were both buried in the old churchyard. Others mentioned on a plaque are Sir Edmund Douce (Cupbearer to 2 Queens) and James Figg (Pugilist).

From funerals to weddings and baptisms: Lord Byron was baptized there, and Lord Nelson, who worshipped in the church, had his only child – daughter Horatia – baptized there.

William Hogarth portrayed the interior of the church in the marriage scene from his famous series ‘A Rake’s Progress’ and the old church also saw the weddings of Francis Bacon, Richard Brinsley Sheridan, and Elizabeth Barrett, who lived in nearby Wimpole Street with her family from 1838 until she eloped with fellow poet Robert Browning.

Grotto Passage: shells, schools, and Jezebels

Here’s one of the London street names that is exactly what it sounds like: Grotto Passage in Marylebone is named for a grotto and is the 18th-century testament to one man’s enduring passion. John Castle, or Castles, a creative artist who used shells as his medium, presented George II with the king’s arms in shell work and received a Royal Acknowledgement for his pains.He was later invited by Sir Robert Walpole to construct a grotto in the Royal hospital garden at Chelsea and his fame grew.

Castle built his own grotto on one and a half acres of land near Moxon Street (Grotto Passage stands on the original site) and people flocked to see his intricate shell designs housed in tents and sheds. In 1748 one newspaper reported, “At Marybon is to be seen, Castle’s great and inimitable GROTTO, or SHELL-WORK, so much admired by the Curious”.

The Grotto also offered meals and various entertainment and even attracted members of the royal family – leading Castle to call it the ‘Royal Grotto’ and to raise the entrance fee from one shilling to half a crown. According to one 19th-century London historian, it was an ““Exhibition of Shell-work, called the Great Grotto, the property of one John Castles, who died in 1757; the ingenuity of this artist appears to have been duly appreciated by the Public, his Exhibition have been a celebrated place of fashionable resort.”

Castle died in 1757 and the Grotto was never the same afterwards; it closed finally in 1759 and was built over, but at least its name lives on in the passage and also on the name of a school carved into a wall in the passage: The Grotto Ragged and Industrial Schools.

The school was established in 1845, part of the 19th-century movement of ragged schools, charitable organisations dedicated to the free education of destitute children. A report on the school paints a vivid portrait of what the area was like in the Victorian age, pointing a particularly disapproving finger at the oldest profession.

“The district selected by the founders for their beneficent efforts is notoriously one of the most debased spots of London. The nest of courts midst which it is planted form an oblong square, so flanked by the residences of the aristocracy that a stone’s- throw suffices to divide the homes of penury from the halls of luxury. In no part of London does the “great social evil,” as it has been aptly termed, form a more prominent feature—the only distinction being that, whilst the reveller of the Haymarket flaunts in silk and satin, with brandied-eye and rouge-cheek, the wretched tenants of this place are too poor to disguise their vice, or too degraded to seek to hide their occupation, Jezebel like, by paint.”

Plum Pudding Day, Noel Street, and North Pole Road

Christmas in February: 12 February is, it seems, Plum Pudding Day – the traditional British Christmas dessert. So in the spirit of Christmas, here are a couple of seasonal London street names which have nothing to do with Christmas.

Noel Street, just south of Oxford Street, was named for Lady Elizabeth Noel, daughter-in-law of Hans Bentinck, Duke 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.

Noel Road, further north in Islington, is famous, or infamous, for having been where the playwright Joe Orton and his lover Kenneth Halliwell lived, and where they died. They were living here when they were sentenced to a six-month jail sentence for stealing and defacing library books (now proudly displayed in the same library’s Orton archives). In 1967 Halliwell battered Orton to death with a hammer and then committed suicide.

There is also a North Pole Road, named from a 19th-century tavern of that replaced an earlier inn called the Globe. North Pole was a relatively common pub name in Victorian London, so the name predates any expedition to the pole. For some time Robert Edwin Peary was considered to have been the first person to reach the North Pole but that was disputed and the official first explorers reached there in 1969.

Hangings at Lime Street and Tyburn (or Tyburnia)

Claude Duval painting
Claude Duval portrayed in art

This day in London history: on 21 January 1664, Colonel James Turner (thief) was hanged at the end of Lime Street, and on 21 January 1670, Claude Duval, or Du Vall (highwayman), was hanged at Tyburn.

Samuel Pepys wrote in his diary on the day of Turner’s execution that he sent his wife to his aunt’s house, in the area of Lime Street, to save him a good place for viewing the execution.

When the time came, says Pepys, “And there I got for a shilling to stand upon the wheel of a cart, in great pain, above an houre before the execution was done; he delaying the time by long discourses and prayers one after another, in hopes of a reprieve; but none came, and at last was flung off the ladder in his cloake. A comely-looked man he he was, and kept his countenance to the end: I was sorry to see him.”

Not, presumably, sorry enough to have held off watching the execution; according to Pepys there were “at least 12 or 14,000 people in the street”.

EAS_4130Lime Street was the scene of Turner’s crime: the robbery of a jeweller. According to the Newgate Calendar, “There was one Mr Francis Tryon, a great merchant, who lived in Lime Street, whom Colonel Turner knew to be very rich”. It seems that Turner was very charismatic and though his guilt was proved conclusively, “all who knew him wondered at the fact”.

Lloyds of London Image Portfolio Feb2011
The Lloyd’s of London building

Lime Street is an ancient street that now serves as the location of the ‘Inside-Out Building’ that is the headquarters of Lloyd’s of London, though the institution began life in Pope’s Head Alley near Leadenhall Street. The street was Limestrate in the 12th century, and one of the documents in which it appears also mentions one ‘Ailnoth the limeburner’, so it seems safe to assume that it was a street where lime was burned and sold.

There is, as ever, a conflicting theory: the name derives from a row of lime trees that ran along it. Possibly, but somehow a row of lime trees does not seem likely in 12th-century London.

And on to Duval, who was also a charismatic villain who dressed well and behaved in a gentlemanly fashion using no violence in his hold-ups. Following his execution he was said to have been given a grand funeral and buried at St Paul’s, Covent Garden, where his memorial stone stated:

Here lies Du Vall. Reader, if Male thou art
Look to thy purse: if female, to thy heart.

According to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, however, states that Duval was “a figure more of literary invention than of history”. His name does not appear in the death register for St Paul’s and he is now known to be buried at St Giles-in-the-Fields.

A hanging at Tyburn

The Tyburn River supposedly took its name from a word meaning ‘boundary stream’; in the middle ages it served as the boundary for Westminster. The Tyburn tree, the site of public hangings from at least 1196 to 1793, is near modern-day Marble Arch. The river flowed through Marylebone and the novelist William Makepeace Thackeray is supposed to have dubbed the area from Portman Square to the Edgware Road ‘Tyburnia’. That area is now touted by estate agents as one of the hottest residential areas in London.

Wallis Simpson and the flat in Marylebone

Wallis Simpson
Wallis Simpson

This day in London history: on 20 January 1936 Edward,  eldest son of King George V and Queen Mary and son of Edward VII and Queen Alexandra, was crowned king Edward VIII. Before the year was out he would have given up his throne for Wallis Simpson, a twice-divorced American.

The pair met and began their affair while Simpson was still married to her second husband, and Simpson “entertained” Edward at a luxury flat in Marylebone, on the corner of Seymour Place and George Street. George Street took its name from George III and, ironically, when Edward abdicated, his brother Albert ascended the throne and took the name of George, becoming King George VI.

St James
St James’s, Spanish Place

George Street is the home of the church of St James’s, Spanish Place, a church that faces west rather than east as is the tradition, so that in the morning the priest and congregation face towards the rising sun. There was expectation that the land east of the church would become available and the church could be extended. This, however, never happened.

Many streets in Marylebone take their name from Portman family members and country estates, and Seymour Place is no exception. In 1553 the Portman family, hailing from the West Country, took possession of the estate – then over 270 acres stretching from Oxford Street to Regent’s canal – when Sir William Portman, Lord Chief Justice of England, bought the property. The land was still relatively undeveloped in 1745 when the main occupation in the area was pig farming and the depositing of ‘night soil’ (human excrement collected at night from cesspools , privies, etc. and sometimes used as a fertilizer).

However, in 1764 Henry William Portman started an ambitious building project of a square surrounded by streets, including Seymour Place and Seymour Street, named for Portman’s mother, born Anne Seymour. The square was Portman Square, the nucleus of the Portman Estate, and the project was so successful that for close to two centuries the estate remained one of London’s most desirable residential areas.

As far as Edward and Wallis go, recent evidence suggests that, instead of a king being manipulated by a scheming American divorcee (nicknamed the ‘Yankee Harlot’) into giving up his throne, it was Wallis who became the object of an obsession on the part of a philandering royal with a history of womanizing. Letters that came to light hint that Simpson, whatever her faults, was overtaken by events and was desperately unhappy at having to give up her second husband. There have been hints that it was not entirely her choice to leave her husband and marry Edward and even that her divorce was expedited by the powers that be and was not entirely legal.

The letters written to her ex-husband over a period from 1936 to 1937 ; she even writes one on her honeymoon telling him that “I think of us so much though I try not to.” They suggest that she was deeply unhappy at the way in which circumstances had unfolded and, as the journalist who first got a glimpse of these letters says, “the story of Wallis and Edward is really a tale of gothic darkness with a Faustian pact at its core”.

Still, the couple remained to the world a devoted couple who were married for nearly 40 years.