Hats, mitres, and poison in London’s streets

Well, it seems today is Mad Hatter Day, a day to celebrate silliness. Apparently it dates back to 1986 and was the idea of a group of computer people in Colorado. It takes its name from the fact that in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland the Mad Hatter’s hat has a slip of paper that reads ‘10/6’. From 10 shillings and sixpence to October 6. Simple.

In keeping with the tone of the Mad Hatter and silliness, there is a Batty Street in East London.The origin of this name, which conjures up images of ditzy aunts, is uncertain; there was a William Batty who developed property in London so it could have been named for him.

However, a more sinister association with the street is that of a locked room murder that took place in 1887. Miriam Angel, one of the lodgers in a building at number 18 Batty Street was found dead in her locked room. She had been killed by the very unpleasant method of having nitric acid poured down her throat. Another lodger, Israel Lipski, was discovered under her bed with acid burns in his mouth, so it was a pretty safe bet he was the culprit. He professed his innocence at first but confessed later.

From the mad bit to the hatter bit, and there is a Hat & Mitre Court, which is virtually opposite Passing Alley, near Smithfield Market, and is little more than a slight gap between buildings. There was an 18th-century tavern here called the Mitre, a once-common name especially in areas, such as this, with a large ecclesiastical population.

The hat was one of those objects common in signs – first, and not unnaturally, for hatters’ shops, and later also for inns. Why the combination of the hat and mitre (which is a type of hat in that it is ecclesiastical headgear) is uncertain. Possibly a new landlord of the Mitre once had a tavern called the Hat and was reluctant to give up the name and possibly lose customers. Combining the names of two taverns was a ruse often employed for landlords to get the best of both worlds as far as customers went.

Another hat with an ecclesiastical connection is Cardinal Cap Alley, named for the Cardinal Cap, or Cardinal’s Hat, one of the licensed brothels of Bankside.

Scatalogical London: from Farting Lane to Pissing Alley

EAS_3912Londoners, like New Yorkers, are not afraid to tell it like it is, and many of the city’s street names reflect (or reflected) that forthright quality. Street hygiene centuries ago was not what it could have been, and residents were by no means shy about calling streets by their most noticeable, however unflattering, attributes – such as Dirty Lane, Filth Alley, Pissing Alley, and Stinking Lane.

Many of these names have been changed to protect the innocent minds; others have been corrupted over the years and are no longer as obvious as they once were.

For instance, Passing Alley near Smithfield Market was changed from Pissing Alley, a name that served to sum up the popular use of the lane. At one end of the the alley was a tavern where prisoners on their way from Clerkenwell to Newgate were allowed to pause for refreshment. Presumably they then also stopped in Pissing Alley for relief.

EAS_3935Maiden Lane in Covent Garden, according to Disraeli (Isaac, not Benjamin), took its name from a statue of the Virgin Mary which once stood on the corner of the lane. However, it is more likely that the name actually derives from the ‘middens’ – dung heaps – that once proliferated in the area. Incidentally, there is a Maiden Lane in Manhattan’s financial district (apparently unrelated to dung heaps) that inspired a 1936 crime film, 15 Maiden Lane.

The most charming theory behind the name of Cloak Lane in the City of London is that it is where Lady Elizabeth Hatton dropped her cloak as she was being carried off by the devil and about to leave her heart in Bleeding Heart Yard. Sadly, the name, which first appears in the late 17th century (thus, alas, predating Lady Elizabeth), is more likely to have derived from the Latin ‘cloaca’, or sewer.

Also in the City of London, Addle Hill has at least two different theories as to the derivation of its name: one is that was once King Adele Street, from the grandson of King Alfred. But, for the purposes of this blog, the other theory is that that the name derives from the Old English word adela (translated variously as stinking urine or liquid manure).

The sewer gas lamp replica in Carting Lane

Carting Lane just off the Strand doubly deserves its place in Scatological London. First of all, it was once called Dirty Lane; the name was was changed during the mid 19th century in deference to the residents’ sensibilities.

However, Carting Lane became Farting Lane to many people because of the sewer gas lamp that once stood in the lane – a replica of which is still there.