From Billingsgate to Pall Mall: women in London street names on International Women’s Day

Today is International Women’s Day and, as promised, here are some more – and even more tenuous women’s links to London street names, starting with possibly the most tenuous: Janis Joplin and Kensington Gore.

Kensington Gore is the address of the Royal Albert Hall, where Janis Joplin once performed in concert. Texan-born Janis began singing blues and folk music at high school and later became one of the most successful and widely known female rock stars of her era. Her posthumously-released album Pearl (became the biggest-selling album of her career and featured her biggest hit single, a cover of ‘Me and Bobby McGee’, originally sung by Kris Kristofferson. She died of a accidental heroin overdose at the age of 27, within days of Jimi Hendrix’s death at the same age. This led many people to attribute significance to the death of musicians at the age of 27.

(When I was a teenager I was often told I looked like Janis Joplin; I think it was the long hair, centre part, and glasses of that time. Those three features meant that occasionally I was also told I looked like John Lennon, which was less preferable to a self-conscious teenaged girl.)

But I digress.

Back to Kensingon Gore: the ‘gore’ part of the name is innocent of anything gruesome: it comes from the Old English word ‘gara’, which was a triangular piece of land left after irregularly shaped fields and been ploughed. This could be the triangle formed by Knightsbridge, Queen’s Gate and the Brompton Road. Aretired British pharmacist, John Tinegate, used to make fake blood for the stage and screen and it was trademarked Kensington Gore.

We move on to Allgood Street and Henrietta Wentworth. Henrietta was the 6th Baroness Wentworth and, though due to marry Richard Tufton, 5th Earl of Thanet, took up with the already-married Duke of Monmouth. Monmouth, the natural but illegitimate son of Charles II, sought to overthrow his uncle, King James II of England and James VI of Scotland, younger brother and heir of Charles II.

Monmouth’s rebellion was ultimately unsuccessful and he was executed at Tower Hill. Henrietta had used her jewels and wealth to help fund Monmouth and she died the year after Monmouth’s execution, supposedly from a broken heart. Her mother had an elaborate monument built to Henrietta’s memory in the church at Toddington, the Wentworth’s estate in Bedfordshire. However, a more personal and touching memorial existed in the form of her name, carved by Monmouth, on an oak tree in the Toddington estate. The tree became known locally as the Monmouth.

Allgood Street in East London was previously called Henrietta Street but was later renamed after a local antiquarian, HGC Allgood, who published a history of Bethnal Green in 1894. 

Birdcage Walk, which runs along St James’s Park, also involves a broken-hearted woman; in this case she adhered to the principle of ‘don’t get mad, get even’. The walk really once did involve birds, cages, and walking: it 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). Charles is also credited with creating the post of Hereditary Grand Falconer to look after his birds and until 1828 only members of the royal family and the Hereditary Grand Falconer were allowed to ride alongside the aviary in carriages – everyone else had to walk.

In 1848 Annette Meyers, an unemployed housemaid from Belgium, killed her lover, Henry Ducker of the Coldstream Guards, in Birdcage Walk. Ducker was an unpleasant character whose affection for his various girlfriends was in direct proportion to the amount of money with which they could provide him. He kept borrowing money from the out-of-work Annette on a never-fulfilled promise of marriage.

Desperately afraid she would lose Ducker to a rival who was lucratively employed in prostitution, Annette purchased a gun, shot Ducker, and surrendered to the authorities, denying nothing. Annette’s trial for wilful murder was of great interest to the public. Her love letters were read out in court, providing an indication of her infatuation and desperation, and there was some suggestion that Ducker may have infected her with a venereal disease. 

Annette was found guilty of wilful murder with a recommendation for mercy but she was sentenced to death and incarcerated in Newgate prison awaiting execution. Following petitions for her release, calls for mercy, and campaigns against capital punishment, her sentence was eventually commuted to imprisonment. After two years she was sent to Van Diemen’s Land, now known as Tasmania.

Brunswick Square in Bloomsbury was built in 1795 and named after Caroline Amelia Elizabeth of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel, known as Caroline of Brunswick, who travelled that year to England to marry her first cousin, the future King George IV. Some sources say it was so named as a compliment to to the reigning royal house of Hanover, as Brunswick in Hanover was their second capital city. This is International Women’s Day, so I say it was named after her.

The union was not a happy one: of the wedding night consummation of their marriage, George wrote, “it required no small [effort] to conquer my aversion and overcome the disgust of her person”. She, on the other hand, said that he was so drunk that he “passed the greatest part of his bridal night under the grate, where he fell, and where I left him”.

George was later to attempt to divorce Caroline and strip her of her title of Queen consort on the grounds of adultery; she was popular with the masses, however, and that effort failed. However, he did succeed in barring her from his coronation service at Westminster Abbey.

Number 79 Pall Mall bears a plaque on the site of the house occupied by Eleanor (Nell) Gwynne in the last 16 years of her life. Nell was (allegedly – Oxford and Hereford also lay claim to be her birthplace) born in one of Covent Garden’s sleazier streets, in a brothel run by her mother. She was orphaned after her father died in prison and her mother drowned in a drunken stupor.  Nell was one of King Charles II’s mistresses and, purportedly, his favourite, particularly as she did not try to dabble in politics, unlike some of his other mistresses. She was firm on one issue however – she was insistent that her child by Charles who, though the son of a king, was illegitimate and so had no rights under law, be given a title.

To ensure this, she dangled the child from a window and threatened to drop him until Charles finally gave in and said, “Nay, Nellie, pray spare the Earl of Burford.”

Pall Mall takes its name from a French game, paille-maille (also known as palla a maglio), mentioned as early as the reign of James I, who recommended the game for his eldest son, Prince Henry. The game was similar to croquet, involving a “wooden hammer set to the end of a long staff to strike a boule with”. Pall Mall was allegedly constructed by Charles II especially for the playing of this game.

Noel Street in Soho takes it name from Lady Elizabeth Noel who was married to Henry Bentinck, 1st Duke of Portland. Elizabeth’s father-in-law was Hans William Bentinck, Ist Earl of Portland and a friend of William III. The king gave a great deal of land in Soho to Bentinck and in the 1730s it was Lady Elizabeth who was responsible for developing much of the property. The nearby Marylebone area abounds with street names from the Bentinck family.

Just for the fun of it, let’s throw in Billingsgate, which is a market rather than a street. It was one of the water-gates of London that existed along with the seven main gates that were posterns in the London Wall fortification. Billingsgate is perhaps most closely associated with the fish market, and the cries of the vendors gave their name to an expression of vulgar language, as in swearing like a fishwife, particularly a Billingsgate fishwife. Billingsgate has its own special place in London’s history, as it was where the fire of London started.

Pall Mall, gas lights and celestial beds

Peep Gas Lights Pall Mall
A caricature of reactions to the lights by Thomas Rowlandson

This day in London history: on 28 January 1807, London’s Pall Mall became the first street to have public lighting by gas.

Pall Mall takes its name from a French game, paille-maille (also known as palla a maglio), mentioned as early as the reign of James I, who recommended the game for his eldest son, Prince Henry. The game was similar to croquet, involving a “wooden hammer set to the end of a long staff to strike a boule with”. Pall Mall was allegedly constructed by Charles II especially for the playing of this game.

Gainsborough plaqueThe artist Thomas Gainsborough lived here, in Schomberg House, from 1774 until his death and there is a blue plaque to commemorate the fact. Another resident of the house was WIlliam Augustus, Duke of Cumberland and military commander. He was the third son of George II, and in 1739 an Act of Parliament was passed to allow him an annual income of £15,000 from the civil list.

The Duke also became known later as the ‘Butcher of Colloden’ after the half hour battle in which around two thousand Scottish rebels were slain. His brother, the future King George III, was instrumental in spreading unpleasant rumours about him, but he ended up being generally disliked with little help from anyone else.

Even more of a claim to fame, or infamy, for the house, built in 1698, was its use as a headquarters for the quirkiest of quacks. James Graham studied medicine at the University of Edinburgh, though it is not certain that he even actually qualified. He was not ignorant of basic health and hygiene: he supported vegetarian diets, fresh air, temperance in the consumption of alcohol, and sleeping on mattresses. But he went on to more elaborate medical theories and practices.

Schomberg House 1850
Schomberg House in 1850

Graham first set up his operations at Adelphi Terrace, in an elaborately decorated house with equipment said to have cost around £10,000. The cost of this ‘Temple of Health and Hymen’ proved too much and in 1781 Graham moved his operation to Schomberg House. It was, basically, an 18th-century sex therapy clinic and fertility centre, though mud baths and card games were also available. One of Graham’s assistants was a young girl known as Vestina, Goddess of Health. She was one Emy Lyon, later better known as Emma Hart and then even more famously as Lady Hamilton, mistress of Admiral Nelson and the mother of his child.

The centrepiece of this temple of Hymen was the Grand Celestial Bed, guaranteed (at £50 per night) to induce conception for even the most infertile of couples. The bed, which had mattresses filled with springy stallion hair and coloured sheets, was supported by forty glass pillars and surmounted by a mirror-lined dome. The name comes from the not very flattering line in Hamlet where the ghost of Hamlet’s father tells him:

So lust, though to a radiant angel link’d,
Will sate itself in a celestial bed,
And prey on garbage.

Music, which came from the mouths of gild nymphs on each of the glass pillars, completed the course necessary for the conception of perfect babies with a couple “powerfully agitated in the delights of love”. Also important for the treatment was the prior lecture on generation, delivered by the ‘doctor’ himself.

Despite his innovative ideas, Graham was not always taken seriously. He became something of a religious fanatic and eventually returned to Edinburgh, called himself the Servant of the Lord OWL (Oh Wonderful Love). He was, for a time, confined to his house as a lunatic and finally died at home on his 49th birthday.

Nell Gwynne plaquePall Mall also bears a plaque on the site of the house occupied by Eleanor (Nell) Gwynne in the last 16 years of her life. She, too, had an impressive bed that may have served as an inspiration for Graham: it was solid silver and situated in a room lined with mirrors. Nell, of course, was less famous for her bed than for who was in it – most notably Charles II.

Her start in life was relatively inauspicious: Nell was born in one of Covent Garden’s sleazier streets, in a brothel run by her mother. She was orphaned after her father died in prison and her mother drowned in a drunken stupor. Despite remaining illiterate all her life, she was known as “pretty, witty Nell”.

One of best, non-physical, attributes – as far as Charles was concerned – was that she did not try to dabble in politics, unlike some of his other mistresses. (Dabbling in politics was, and possibly is, a not uncommon failing of royal mistresses, as with Lola Montez.) Nell was, however, insistent that her child by Charles who, though the son of a king, was illegitimate and so had no rights under law, be given a title.

To ensure this, she dangled the child from a window and threatened to drop him until Charles finally gave in and said, “Nay, Nellie, pray spare the Earl of Burford.” Nell was probably Charles’s favourite of all his many mistresses and, as tradition has it, his last words were, “Let not poor Nellie starve.”

Fire, whores, and Wall Street

This day in London history: on 4 January 1698 Whitehall Palace burned down, in a fire that raged for 17 hours. The event was noted, somewhat casually, by the diarist John Evelyn who wrote, the following day, “Whitehall burnt, nothing but walls and ruins left.”

The Duchess of Portsmouth

It was not the first time the palace had been struck by flames: in 1691 a fire broke out in the apartments of the Duchess of Portsmouth, one of Charles II’s mistresses. The Duchess, born Louise Renée de Penancoët de Kérouaille of French nobility, was Catholic and was not popular with the English – in particular one of Charles’s other mistresses, Nell Gwynne.

Nell referred to her rival in the king’s affections as Squintabella and said Louise’s underclothes were not clean. On one occasion, when booed by people mistaking her for Louise, Nell said, “Pray, good people, be civil – I am the Protestant whore.”

Nell Gwynne

Along those lines, Nell is also said to have witnessed a fight between her coachman and another man who referred to her as a whore. She broke up the fight, saying, “I am a whore. Find something else to fight about.”

The palace gave its name to the street Whitehall, now considered the seat of British government. The only surviving part of the palace – the Banqueting Hall – was where Charles I was beheaded. Oliver Cromwell lived at the palace, as did Charles II, following the the Restoration when he was invited to take the throne. Like his father, he also died at the palace, but of natural causes, rather than decapitation.

The execution of Charles I

Also on this day in London history, 56 years earlier, King Charles I had entered the House of Commons to arrest five Members of Parliament for high treason. The men he sought (John Hampden, Arthur Haselrig, Denzil Holles, John Pym and William Strode) had been tipped off and already fled.

The king was defied (politely) by the Speaker of the House, William Lenthall, who said, “May it please your majesty, I have neither eyes to see nor tongue to speak in this place but as this house is pleased to direct me whose servant I am here; and humbly beg your majesty’s pardon that I cannot give any other answer than this is to what your majesty is pleased to demand of me.”

Lenthall’s reply was, basically, reminding the king of the parliamentary privilege. Since then, no monarch has entered the House of Commons.

Wall Street
New York Stock Exchange in Wall Street

And now for something completely different: also on this day in history: January 4, 1865, the New York Stock Exchange opened its first permanent headquarters at 10-12 Broad near Wall Street. Wall Street, apparently takes its name from, surprisingly, a wall, built in 1653 when New York was New Amsterdam. Britain and The Netherlands were at war at the time and the city dwellers were expecting an attack from New England.