Pelicans, phoenixes and other royal street name references

Given the current meteorological conditions I should be focusing on snow but I covered Snow Hill recently, and you can read that post here. I was, however, enjoying the snow today when I went out with the dogs and I discovered two things.

First, that it’s not easy making snow angels with two springer spaniels (snowdogs) who want to get involved. Second, negotiating the more slippery bits along the river bank was easier if I adopted a peculiar, penguin-like waddle.

And that, faithful readers, leads me nicely into today’s bird-themed post, which is following up on my current pelican obsession.

After the last post on Pelican Stairs and The Prospect of Whitby, I continued my research into why a pub – and Francis Drake’s ship – would be named after a bird that is not indigenous to the UK. I did find out quite a lot about the use of pelicans in heraldry and religious allusions, but I have now learned more, and possibly the answer to my original questions.

But first, this is how my research into London street names started; it went something like this?

Q: Why are Pelican Stairs called that? 
A: They are named after a pub.
Q: Ok, but why name a pub The Pelican?
A: ?

I wanted to know more (though the street that set me off originally was Bleeding Heart Yard), so I started looking into pub names, then I would learn something about a resident in a particular street, or some reason that a particular pub had a special place in history. And it went from there. Then I reasoned that I couldn’t be the only person who wanted to know the rest of the story. (A nod here to Paul Harvey and his radio programme ‘The Rest of the Story’ of which my mother was a dedicated listener.) Why not write a book, I thought.

And here we are. I need to learn how to balance chasing after these tangents with actually pulling all my research and text into a publishable form. I keep finding new street names and new interesting facts, so the blog is supposed to be a way of channeling that information while I work on the book in the background.

What about the pelicans? I hear you cry.

It suddenly occurred to me that a well known insurance company uses a pelican as its logo and I checked the company’s website. That website informed me that the pelican generally has royal connotations.

Then I learned, from the Royal Museums Greenwich website, that the pelican was a favourite symbol of Elizabeth I. In times of food shortages, mother pelicans were believed to pluck their own breasts to feed their dying young with their blood and save their lives; Elizabeth used this symbol to portray her motherly love for her subjects.

That certainly could explain why pubs and Drake’s ship would pay homage to the pelican. Yay. That’s Pelican Stairs out of the way for now.

But wait – it didn’t stop there. I discovered that another favourite symbol of Elizabeth’s was the phoenix. There are a pair of portraits of the queen, painted on wood panels that scientific analysis has shown to be from the same two oak trees. The portraits, also painted in the same workshop, are called the Phoenix and Pelican portraits because in each of them she is wearing jewels depicting each of these birds.

A little more research uncovered some more of the queen’s favoured symbols, which are all used in another portrait, the Armada Portrait. These are pearls, a mermaid, and the globe.

Now I can view the pelican research not as wasted time but as a jumping off point for more London street names.

Phoenix Street, for instance, in the West End; this is said to take its name from the Phoenix cockpit that is also commemorated in Cockpit Alley, the site on which the Drury Lane theatre was later built. That’s one theory. The other is that it takes its name from a pub.

Near Mount Pleasant, which we will look at another time, there is a Phoenix Place that took its name from an iron foundry – now a car park – and a Phoenix Road near King’s Cross that was named for a tavern. Mythical creatures such as the phoenix and the mermaid, were popular for signs.

Which, happily, brings us to another Elizabethan symbol: the mermaid. There is a Mermaid Court in Southwark, once known as Mermaid Alley. It takes its name from a pub, which is turn could have taken its name either from the mythical creature or from the fact that, given the once-dubious nature of the area south of the river, ‘mermaid’ could have been used in its not uncommon 16th-century meaning of a courtesan. Or, bluntly, a prostitute.

A more famous Mermaid Tavern (dating back to 1411, so possibly another prostitute reference) was that with one entrance on Bread Street and one on Friday Street. It is supposedly where where Sir Walter Raleigh instituted the Mermaid Club (or Friday Street Club). Members are said to have included Ben Jonson and William Shakespeare.

There is a Pearl Street not far from Pelican Stairs, but I am still trying to find out where that name came from.

Finally, there are various Globes, including Globe Road and Globe Street, both named for taverns. The latter may commemorate the original Globe Theatre. But more of that another time.

I’ve never met an animal I didn’t like

Horseferry RoadFrom some of London’s eccentric men and wicked women, today is the turn of the animals with a London connection. Yesterday’s blog included Dante Gabriel Rossetti and his menagerie, including a wombat named after the man whom Rossetti had cuckolded.

EAS_3916William Hogarth was another animal-loving painter: he had a succession of pugs, the favourite of which was included in a self-portrait. Apparently Hogarth often commented on the resemblance between himself and the dog, called Trump.

Bear GardensFrom pets to animals that were the target of great cruelty: Bear Gardens in Southwark marks the site of a 17th-century bear pit, where one of the more revolting sports of earlier times – bear baiting – was staged. The pit was visited by the diarists Samuel Pepys, who described it as “a very rude and nasty pleasure”; and John Evelyn, who noted that it was a “rude and dirty pastime”.

Cockspur Street signCock fighting was another very popular sport, and Cockspur Street near Trafalgar Square is one of many London streets whose name reflects the old ‘sport’ of cock fighting. The spurs with which the birds were equipped to ensure even greater flow of blood, were made and sold in this street.

cock laneThere is also a Cock Lane in the City of London, and its intersection with Giltspur Street is where the Great Fire of 1666 finally halted. The spot is marked by the statue of a fat little boy (the Golden Boy of Pye Corner).

Houndsditch, near Aldgate, has a literal (and disgusting) derivation:: it runs along the site of a moat that bounded the City wall and, according to John Stow, it was where “much filth…especially dead dogs” was Houndsditchthrown. On a happier note, another theory about the name is that hounds (from Old English ‘hund’) were specifically hunting dogs, whereas dogs were just, well, dogs. The City Kennels, where hunting dogs were kept, were located here.

But back to pets and animals more kindly treated. Birdcage Walk near Buckingham Palace is the site of an aviary started by James I and enlarged by his grandson, Charles II (though some sources give Charles the credit for establishing it).

Birdcage WalkJames was fond of animals and in addition to the birds had a comprehensive menagerie, including crocodiles and an elephant. Charles expanded the aviary considerably with a collection of exotic birds; he was also to be seen strolling through the park, feeding the ducks and playing with his dogs

EAS_4123Do mermaids count as animals? There is a Mermaid Court in Southwark, named from an inn. The name was a common one, and especially popular for taverns in areas frequented by sailors, who had long believed in the existence of the beautiful creatures who were half woman, half fish.

Mermaid Court is not far from the south bank of the Thames, and a tavern there could have attracted its fair share of nautical drinkers. (Another, perhaps more famous, Mermaid Tavern was that on Cheapside, where Ben Jonson was a regular.)

EAS_3973Many of London’s street names derive from inns and taverns, and sometimes shops and these in turn often featured animals. Some of the quirkier names include Fox and Knot Street in the City, and Cat and Mutton Bridge in East London.

Regarding the Fox and Knot, opinion is divided as to whether the name comes from a tavern (by why the Fox and Knot is a mystery) or from the shop of a furrier who catered to ladies only – and presumably did a good trade in fox furs.

There is still a Cat and Mutton pub at the bridge, but which came first and what the original name was is not clear. There are theories that it was once called either Shoulder of Mutton and Cat or Cattle and Shoulder of Mutton. In either case, the name is likely to have been connected to the nearby canal where drovers would arrive to sell their animals.

One last ‘animal’ London connection (for now): at one point the licensed brothels of London’s Bankside were leased from the Bishops of Winchester, and the working women therein were known as ‘Winchester Geese’.

Before I forget, thank you to Doris Day who provided today’s heading; the full quote is: “I’ve never met an animal I didn’t like, and I can’t say the same thing about people.”

Crusoe, Friday Street, and the Bank of England

Crusoe and Friday
19th-century depiction of Crusoe and Friday

This day in London’s history: on 2 February 1709, British sailor Alexander Selkirk is rescued after being marooned on a desert island for five years. He was the inspiration behind Daniel Defoe’s most famous work, the novel Robinson Crusoe. In Mitcham, near Tooting, there is a Friday Road commemorating, along with Crusoe and Island roads, the fact that Daniel Defoe lived in the area.

Friday appears to be the only day of the week represented in London street names, and there are a few of them, including Friday Street in the City of London. This 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”.

In Catholic England, meat would have been forbidden on Friday – in fact, one man was burnt to death on Tower Hill in 1430 for eating meat on Friday. Fish stalls would, therefore, have been popular for the shoppers buying their groceries along the lanes of Cheapside.

Mermaid Tavern engraving
17th-century engraving supposedly showing the Mermaid Tavern sign

There was a famous tavern that stood in Bread Street but had a side entrance on Friday Street: the Mermaid tavern. It was here, tradition holds, that Sir Walter Raleigh (or Ralegh) instituted the Mermaid Club, the “Fraternity of Sireniacal Gentlemen’, which met, appropriately, on the first Friday of every month.

Grave doubts have been cast, from many quarters, on the truth of the club’s existence, the assertion that Raleigh formed such a club, and that the club included Ben Jonson and William Shakespeare among its members. Leaving aside such wet-blanketism, it is certain that Jonson was an habitué of the Mermaid, and at least possible that he was joined on occasion by Shakespeare.

Sir William Paterson
Sir William Paterson

There was a contrastingly named Wednesday Club, formed in Friday Street by William Paterson, a 17th-century Scottish merchant famous for being the founder of the Bank of England – and infamous for originating the Darien scheme (or Darien Disaster). This was an unsuccessful attempt by the Kingdom of Scotland to become a world trading nation by establishing a colony called Caledonia on the Isthmus of Panama on the Gulf of Darién in the late 1690s.

Mermaids, drinkers, and prostitutes

Manatee
“Not so beautiful as they are painted”

This day in London history: on 9 January 1493, Christopher Columbus, spotted three manatees near the Dominican Republic and mistook them for mermaids. The disillusioned explorer reported that they were “not half as beautiful as they are painted”. Manatees are considered to have been the source of the mermaid legends; they are now an endangered species.

Mermaid by Waterhouse
Pre-Raphaelite vision of a mermaid

Nothing to do with London, gentle reader? Oh, yes, indeed: there is a Mermaid Court in the Southwark area of London; dating back to at least the early 18th century, it was named from an inn. The name was a common one, and especially popular for taverns in areas frequented by sailors, who had long believed in the existence of the beautiful creatures who were half woman, half fish. Mermaid Court is not far from the south bank of the Thames, and a tavern there could have attracted its fair share of nautical drinkers.

Another, perhaps more famous, Mermaid Tavern was that on Cheapside, with patrons such as Ben Jonson and, legend has it, Shakespeare, though various sources doubt the accuracy of that assertion. Jonson wrote a satirical poem ‘On The Famous Voyage’ about two men journeying along the Fleet ditch, in which he writes:

“At Bread Street’s Mermaid having dined, and merry,
Proposed to go to Holborn in a wherry.”

Mermaids have been around for a long time and, though the mermaids of yore and lore are likely to be the dugong or the manatee, less than beautiful aquatic mammals, it seemed there was no shortage of them up until the 19th century.

Merman Science museum
Victorian merman

Back in the time of King John, a merman was supposed to have been caught and kept alive for six months on raw meal and fish until he made his escape and was never seen again. In the 17th century, a living mermaid was available for viewing in Bell Yard, and in the 18th century another one was spotted in the north of Scotland.

There were several mermaids around in the 19th century, including one (live), which was exhibited in Fleet Street in 1822, and one (stuffed), which was on display at Bartholomew Fair and sketched by George Cruikshank. (“A wood-cut of her may be seen in Morley’s Memoirs of Bartholomew Fair.”)

No self-respecting Victorian gentleman would be without a cabinet of curiosities; according to the London Science Museum (where the above photo of a Victorian merman, or chimera, comes from), “These were collections of obscure and wonderful artefacts. This chimera is made of fish skin, bone, and scales covered in thin paper. It also has animal fur, teeth, claws and tissue attached to heighten the appearance of a ‘real’ animal.”

Drinking in the Mermaid Tavern
Artist’s vision of Shakespeare and others in the Mermaid Tavern

But back to the Mermaid Tavern: another likely explanation for the name of the tavern itself is that, given the once-dubious nature of the area south of the river (see Clink Street, Stew Lane, and Cardinal Cap Alley), ‘mermaid’ could have been used in its not uncommon 16th-century meaning of a courtesan. Or, bluntly, a prostitute.