London misnomers: Brook Street to Orchard Street

brook-streetI recently spent some time wandering around Mayfair or, rather, a small section of Mayfair, during which time I found a few more of London’s ‘misnomers’. There is a charming 19th-century poem (more of which later) by James Smith that spells out many of London’s misnomers, so let’s start with Brook Street, which is “wanting in water”.

Brook Street: “wanting in water”

Though the street may have been (and still is) wanting in water, there was a brook: the now underground River Tyburn; it flowed from Tyburn across Piccadilly, leading to the neighbourhood being called Brookfield. The earliest published use of the name was an ad in the London Gazette of September, 1688: “His Majesty [Charles II] has been graciously pleased to grant a market for live cattle to be held in Brookfield, near Hyde Park Corner, on Tuesday and Thursday in every week”.

When the land became more desirable for buildings than for cattle markets, the designers and architects descended on the area and building was at its height in the 18th century. The principal street at the time was called Brook Street, though early on it was sometimes referred to as Lower Brook Street to distinguish it from Upper Brook Street, and part of it was known as Little Brook Street.

farm-streetFrom fields to farms, and Farm Street, where building began around the 1740s. This street does take its name from a farm in the area, called Hay Hill Farm, which seems pretty straightforward; however, the Hay is not hay as such. The name was a late 17th-century corruption of Ayehill, from the nearby Aye (or Eye) Brook, a tributary of the Tyburn.

In 1927 Tallulah Bankhead bought a house in Farm Street, four years after she had first moved to London.

The farm also gave its name to the nearby Hay Hill and Hay’s Mews; of Hay Hill Smith writes: “And (tho’ it abuts on his garden) Hay Hill/Won’t give Devon’s duke the hay fever”. This is a reference to Devonshire House, originally Berkeley House, from John Berkeley, 1st Baron Berkeley of Stratton, who built it. The name was changed to Devonshire House when it was purchased by William Cavendish, 1st Duke of Devonshire. Hay Hill and many other streets in the area, formed part of the gardens of the house.

Beau Brummell is supposed to have had a sentimental connection to Hay Hill, which is adjacent to Berkeley Square. Thomas Raikes, a London dandy and friend of Brummell’s, recorded this in his journal:

hays-mews-2“At five o’clock on a fine summer’s morning, in 1813, [Brummell] was walking with me through Berkeley Square, and was bitterly lamenting his misfortunes at cards, when he suddenly stopped, seeing something glittering in the kennel. He stooped down and picked up a crooked sixpence, saying, ‘Here is an harbinger of good luck.’ He took it home, and before going to bed drilled a hole in it, and fastened it to his watchchain. The spell was good: during more than two years he was a constant winner at play and on the turf, and, I believe, realised nearly £30,000.”

Brummell was also a friend of the future King George IV, who had less fortunate associations with Hay Hill. Despite – or perhaps because of – the area’s wealth and luxury in the 18th century, it was infested with highwaymen and footpads. George IV, then the Prince of Wales, and his brother, the Duke of York, were apparently stopped one night by highwaymen on Hay Hill, whilst riding in a hackney coach, and robbed of what valuables they had about them”.

hays-mews-contextHay’s Mews (once spelled Hayes Mews), which also takes its name from the farm, is adjacent to Charles Street (a family name of the Berkeley family). On the corner of Charles Street and Hay’s Mews is a pub, originally called I Am the Only Running Footman(supposedly the longest pub name in London), and later The Running Footman.

Back in the day, a running footman did just that – he ran ahead of his master’s coach to clear people out of the way, pay tolls, and perform other essential tasks to ensure a hassle-free journey. Apparently, at the beginning of the 19th century only one such running footman remained, employed by William Douglas, 4th Duke of Queensberry. The Duke lived in Piccadilly, so why a pub in Hay’s Mews should have been named after his footman is something of a mystery.

The pub now calls itself, alas, just The Footman.


Hill Street, which crosses Farm Street, was so named because there was a hill there (as was Hay Hill). Elizabeth Montagu – social reformer, patron of the arts, literary critic, and writer – lived in Hill Street, She helped organize and lead the Blue Stockings Society, and hosted a literary salon at her house. Her circle was known as the Blue Stockings Society and Doctor Johnson called her the “Queen of the Blues”.

The bluestockings were not restricted to women; one regular attendee of the meetings was botanist and published Benjamin Stillingfleet. The story goes that Stillingfleet once attended a meeting in the blue woollen stockings normally worn by working men, instead of the more formal silk stockings. The term was taken up to refer to the informal quality of the gatherings and the emphasis on conversation over fashion.

mount-street-painted-signIn contrast to Hay Hill and Hill Street, Mount Row and Mount Street are not particularly hilly; however, there was once an earthwork there, known as Oliver’s Mount. According to Old and New London, this mount was part of a “line of fortification so hastily drawn round the western suburbs in 1643, by order of the Parliament, when an attack from the royal forces was expected”. The attack didn’t happen and the mount was flattened at some point, but the name lived on in Mount Field, on which the streets were built.

orchard-streetAnd on to Orchard Street, which does contain some trees, but not what you would call an orchard. There is an Orchard Street near Westminster Abbey, and that takes its name from the fact that it was built on land once part of the Abbey’s orchard. This orchard, however, is from Orchard Portman in Somerset, part of the country estates of the Portman family who developed much of the Marylebone area.

Oh, yes, I promised more about that poem, and here it is:

From Park Lane to Wapping, by day and by night,
I’ve many a year been a roamer,
And find that no lawyer can London indict,
Each street, ev’ry lane’s a misnomer.
I find Broad Street, St. Giles’s, a poor narrow nook,
Battle Bridge is unconcious of slaughter,
Duke’s Place cannot muster the ghost of a duke,
And Brook Street is wanting in water.

I went to Cornhill for a bushel of wheat,
And sought it in vain ev’ry shop in,
The Hermitage offered a tranquil retreat,
For the jolly Jack hermits of Wapping.
Spring Gardens, all wintry, appear on the wane,
Sun Alley’s an absolute blinder,
Mount Street is a level, and Bearbinder Lane
Has neither a bear nor a binder.

No football is kicked up and down in Pall Mall,
Change Alley, alas! never varies,
The Serpentine river’s a straightened canal,
Milk Street is denuded of dairies.
Knightsbridge, void of tournaments, lies calm and still
Butcher Row cannot boast a cleaver,
And (tho’ it abuts on his garden) Hay Hill
Won’t give Devon’s duke the hay fever.

The Cockpit’s the focus of law, not of sport,
Water Lane is affected with dryness,
And, spite of its gorgeous approach, Prince’s Court
Is a sorry abode for his highness.
From Baker Street North all the bakers have fled,
So, in verse not quite equal to Homer,
Methinks I have proved what at starting I said,
That London’s one mighty misnomer.

White Horse Street, hill figures, and a dragon

John Rocque, one of London’s most famous cartographers, had a print shop near White Horse Street in Mayfair. The street takes its name from a royal emblem used in tavern signs; this was from the royal house of Hanover, which adopted a galloping white horse, dating from the accession of George I in 1714. The sign itself, however, was in use long before that as the emblem of ancient Saxons and, later, the emblem of Kent.

There are several chalk figures – mainly horses – in the UK, carved into hillsides; although they are not uncommon, only a handful have been dated before 1700. One of the oldest (possibly the oldest) and most famous is in the Vale of the White Horse at Uffington in Oxfordshire.

The age of this horse is uncertain: it was once said to commemorate the victory of King Alfred over the Danes in 871, but it dates back long before that – some say to at least 50 BC. It does not look very much like a horse, and its lines are suggestive of prehistoric cave drawings.

Two notable points about the white horse are that it is the only hillside figure to face to the right, and one of its legs is in the wrong position. Because it is cut on a slope, the earth continually moves from the top of the horse and settles at the bottom, giving rise to the legend that ‘While men sleep the horse climbs up the hill’.

Two of the most famous authors to have immortalized this horse were GK Chesterton and Thomas Hughes. Chesterton wrote the ‘Ballad of the White Horse’ which draws on the story of Alfred and the Danes. Alfred rides past the hill,

“And when he came to White Horse Down
The Great White Horse was grey
For it was ill scoured of the meed,
And lichen and thorn could crawl and feed
Since the foes of settled house and creed
Had swept old works away”

Hughes mentions the horse in Tom Brown’s Schooldays, and it is the centre of his 1857 book The Scouring of the White Horse, which describes the festivities surrounding the cleaning of the figure. The tradition of scouring is an old one whereby the neighbouring residents were responsible for keeping the grass from growing over the horse; when Hughes wrote about it in 1857 it was a revival of the old custom.

One of the stories behind the horse is that it commemorates St George’s slaying of the dragon; a smaller mound near to the horse – Dragon Hill – is free of growth on its top and has twisting trails of chalk down the side which are equally bare. This is supposed to be where the dragon’s venomous blood was spilled and trickled down the side, so that nothing could grow there.

Not related to the street, but to white horses: it was at an country inn called the White Horse that George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham, spent his last few years.

Lola Montez and Half Moon Street

Lola Montez, the Spanish look
Portrait of Lola painted for Ludwig I of Bavaria

This day in London history: on 17 January 1861 Lola Montez, universally described as an adventuress, died. She was born in Ireland, died in New York, and was arrested for bigamy in London’s Half Moon Street.

The street, which was built in 1730, takes its name from an old ale house that stood at the corner. Although not quite as common as the sun, the moon is used in many tavern signs. The half moon could be representative of the Virgin Mary: a crescent moon is sometimes shown under her feet in pictures of the Assumption.

Real residents of Half Moon Street (which was, at one time, less than respectable) included James Boswell, Fanny Burney, Henry James, William Hazlitt, and Somerset Maugham who said in 1930 that the street was “sedate and respectable”.

Branson and Aldrin with Half Moon Street sign
Buzz Aldrin and Richard Branson with a replica of the Half Moon Street sign

Richard Branson also has a connection with Half Moon Street; according to his website, “Speaking of fitting names, Virgin Galactic’s address in London was No.6 Half Moon Street…We named the road which leads up to Spaceport America Half Moon Street too.”

There were also various fictional residents of the street, including Bulldog Drummond, a gentleman adventurer; Algernon Moncreiff from Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest; and PG Wodehouse’s Bertie Wooster, who had a flat there where he was looked after by the unflappable Jeeves. In the erotic thriller Half Moon Street, Sigourney Weaver’s character lives in Half Moon Street.

And, of course, the very real but incredible Lola Montez, of whom Three Musketeers author Alexandre Dumas said, “She is fatal to any man who dares to love her.”

Lola, said to be the inspiration for the song ‘What Lola Wants, Lola Gets’ (as featured in the musical Damn Yankees), was born Marie Dolores Eliza Rosanna Gilbert in Limerick, Ireland. She later claimed to be Spanish, adopted the name Lola Montez, and became famous for her love affairs and her dancing, which involved more enthusiasm than talent. Her most renowned dance was the Tarantula, in which she searched for an imaginary spider in her clothes.

The black-haired, blue-eyed beauty was first married at the age of 19 when she eloped with Captain Thomas James in order to avoid the marriage, to a 60-year-old judge, which her mother had arranged. James abandoned her for another woman and later took out a judicial separation on the grounds of Lola’s adultery. She trained as a dancer in Spain, but an attempt to start a stage career in London as Lola Montez failed when she was recognized as James’s wife and hissed off the stage.

Over the course of her lifetime, Lola travelled extensively in Europe,, collecting famous and powerful lovers along the way. These lovers included 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; that affair is supposed to have ended when he sneaked out of the apartment as she slept and locked the door behind him. He had the foresight to pay for damages on his way out, which was just as well: when Lola awoke she was enraged and smashed everything she could. (If you prefer truth over drama, it seems that they parted amicably after a very short liaison.)

In 1849 Lola married George Heald, who was only just of age; his concerned relatives did a little research and discovered that her judicial separation prevented her (or James) from remarrying. It was in Half Moon Street that she was arrested for bigamy. The besotted Heald paid her bail and they fled the country.

Lola eventually abandoned Heald and their two sons, and began her travels in Australia and the Americas, ending her days in New York. She gave up the stage in favour of the lecture circuit, speaking on topics such as ‘Gallantry’, ‘Fashion’, and ‘Heroines and strong-minded women of history’, in which she scorned the feminist movement in favour of individual self-assertion.

Depending on who you believe, she died either unrepentant or remorseful, and either of a stroke, pneumonia, or syphilis. In any event, she was buried in Greenwood cemetery, Brooklyn, as Mrs Eliza Gilbert, having packed a lot of living into 40 years of life (she was born on 17 February 1821 and her gravestone mistakenly put her age at 42).

There was once a Half Moon Court, demolished in 1879, and also named after a tavern, which was popular with the acting fraternity of the 16th century. Shakespeare is said to have lived there.

The talented and courageous Fanny Burney

Burney plaqueThis day in London history: on 6 January 1840 Fanny Burney, the Victorian novelist and diarist, died at her home in London. 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.”

Fanny BurneyFrances (Fanny) Burney, born in 1752, was the third child of Charles Burney, a musician and author, and his wife, Esther, whose family was of French origin and lived in the parish of St Mary-le-Bow.

Fanny was a talented and gifted – and largely self-taught – writer, but she also goes down in history as a woman of huge courage, having written the earliest known patient’s perspective of a mastectomy – in her case, performed without anaesthetic.

In this harrowing description, penned several months after the operation and taking her three months to write it as she relived the agony, she wrote: “Yet — when the dreadful steel was plunged into the breast – cutting through veins – arteries – flesh – nerves – I needed no injunctions not to restrain my cries. I began a scream that lasted unintermittingly during the whole time of the incision – & I almost marvel that it rings not in my Ears still? so excruciating was the agony.” The pain, she told her sister, continued after the cut had been made, when the delicate area became exposed to air; the ordeal was by no means over at that point as the surgeon needed yet to “separate the bottom, the foundation of this dreadful gland from the parts to which it adhered”, at which point, “I then felt the knife (rack)ling against the breast bone – scraping it!”

This is a small portion of the letter, not for the faint-hearted, in which she also urges Esther and her daughters not to wait as long as she had with any similar health concerns, can be read in its entirety here.

Fanny, whose grave demeanour earned her the family nickname of ‘the Old Lady’ when she was about eleven, was small, slender, and short-sighted. She was educated at home, but was teased by her brother because, at the age of eight, she did not know her letters. A quick learner, Fanny became an avid reader and writer; she wrote a novel (The History of Caroline Evelyn )when she was ten, but possibly burned that and other writings when she was fifteen and trying to “to combat this writing passion”.

The family had moved to London when Fanny was about six, and lived in Poland Street where her father, who was closely acquainted with Samuel Johnson and David Garrick, worked as a music teacher. When Fanny was twelve, her sisters went with their father to France; it was feared that Fanny, who was close to her French, and Catholic grandmother, might succumb to Catholicism. Undeterred, Fanny taught herself French.

EvelinaShe began a diary, the first entry of which is dated 27 March 1768, and experimented with different literary styles. Under a cloak of extreme secrecy she later began writing her first novel, Evelina, apparently composed in part of “disjointed scraps and fragments” she had assembled in 1772, as a sequel to The History of Caroline Evelyn. She wrote the manuscript in a disguised hand, and approached a publisher under the name of Mr King.

Following an unsuccessful first attempt, Fanny, along with her siblings and a cousin who had been taken into her confidence, approached the Fleet Street bookseller Thomas Lowndes, who agreed to publish the book. The book became popular, though it was some time before even her father learned the identity of the author. Samuel Johnson was a great admirer of the book, saying that it was better than the efforts of both Henry Fielding and Samuel Richardson.

In her lifetime Fanny did enjoy commercial success: her book Camilla, or, A Picture of Youth, sold out all 4,000 copies within a few months of publication.

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.

Fanny, who outlived most of her family, including her husband, son, sister, and one of her nieces, died at her London home in Lower Grosvenor Street, and was buried alongside her son in Bath. There is memorial window to her at Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey.