What’s in a name? Petticoat Lane and Of Alley

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I had my knuckles rapped metaphorically by a Twitter bot – did I really just write that? – someone who has taken to Twitter to take umbrage at Madame D’Arblay, née Frances Burney, being referred to as Fanny in yesterday’s post on Half Moon Street. What’s the big deal, I wondered, what’s in a name? That made me think of some of the ‘proper’ names in London that are not nearly as much fun as their previous names.

Let’s start with the obvious: Middlesex Street. Boring, eh? Don’t most people know it as Petticoat Lane? I used to live in Reading where there was a passage properly called Union Street but commonly known (because of a long-term fishmonger there) as Smelly Alley. It was years before I learned that it was really Union Street.

Similarly, I remember trying to find Petticoat Lane in a London A-Z and discovering that it was really Middlesex Street. Yawn. Why, in 1830, Petticoat Lane was renamed I don’t know, but apparently the lane was once a boundary between the City of London and the county of Middlesex. 

There is a history of renaming the lane: in the 14th century this was a country lane called Berwardes Lane, after the local landowner. By the 16th century it ran through a pig farm and was renamed Hog Lane.

It then, presumably through a combination pf the French silk weavers who settled in the area and the secondhand clothes dealers who established this as the centre of London’s used clothes district, became Petticoat Lane.

One of my favourite sources for information on London street names is a 19th-century writer called FH Habben who wrote a book called London street names; their origin, signification, and historic value, published in 1896. He (like the abovementioned bot) could be a little testy at times, particularly when it came to the meaningless renaming of streets and believed this to be an “instance of inappropriate name change”. He ignored the whole rag trade, stating firmly that the name came from the English form of petit court, a little short lane.”

York Place.jpgAnother favourite name of mine that has, again I have no idea why, been changed from fun to boring is Of Alley, which is now York Place and was once part of the house and gardens belonging to George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham. Both of them: father and son, royalists both, who were the first two holders of the title of Duke of Buckingham, and both called George Villiers.

The second duke, a loyal follower of Charles II, fled the country with his king when England became an unhealthy place for them. Although his property was confiscated by Cromwell’s Parliament, Villiers regained it after the Restoration and own return to England.

The property didn’t do him much good: Villiers junior managed to run up so much in the way of debt that he was forced to sell his land. In 1674 it became the possession of a property developer on the condition that the streets built on the land were given Villers’ name. All of them. There were five in total, and they became George Street, Villiers Street, Duke Street (now gone), Of Alley, and Buckingham Street.

At least the street signs there still proclaim that it is York Place, formerly Of Alley.

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London’s clothing streets: from Boot Street to Whalebone Court

Buckle Street2Before Boot Street (alphabetically speaking) there are various Ascot Houses, Courts, and Lodges, but they are all buildings rather than streets. So let’s move along alphabetically to Boot Street near Old Street station in Islington.

One thing I have learned about this street is that it was used as a location for the filming of The Crying Game: the exterior of the Metro Pub, where Dil sings the title song, was an empty property behind a pub on the corner with Coronet Street.

Buckle Street, in East London (not far from Amazon Street, Batty Street and Coke Street) may, like Bucklersbury, take its name from the Bukerel (or Buckerell or Bucherel) family who were London property owners in the 12th century. The family had a fortified mansion, or bury, on the banks of the Walbrook – one of London’s now subterranean rivers, which gave its name to a ward and to the street that still bears its name.

(By the 13th century it was less than salubrious as it had to keep being cleared of dung.) Stow refers to “a manor and tenements pertaining to one Buckle, who dwelt there, and kept his courts”.

Cloak LaneSpeaking of the Walbrook and dung, that takes us to Cloak Lane, which has featured a few times in this blog and is also included in the ‘scatalogical London’ category. Fittingly, it once led over the Walbrook, when it was called Horseshoe Bridge. The current name first appears in the late 17th century and is likely to have derived from the Latin ‘cloaca’, or sewer.
Clothier Street cropA more glamorous, though unlikely in the extreme, explanation is that it refers to the cloak dropped by Lady Elizabeth Hatton as she was carried away from a party by Old Nick from Bleeding Heart Yard. Similarly, Shoe Lane is supposed to be where she dropped her shoe; again, this is – alas – unlikely. More likely is the theory that an early reference to it as ‘Scholanda’ (Show-land) means that the lane was once a place for the setting out and showing of water-borne merchandise to tax collectors and customers.

Other explanations are that Scholanda could also have meant ‘land shaped like a shoe’ and that the lane led to such a piece of land. Alternatively, it could have taken its name from an ancient well –
Showelle – at the north end of the lane.

Give me Lady Elizabeth any time.

Next, we have Cloth Court, Cloth Fair, and Cloth Street, all of which presumably get their name in the same way. 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, essentEAS_4009ially a trade fair for the woollen and drapery industries, with Italian and Flemish cloth merchants, though it later became a rowdy free-for-all. By the early 19th century, pickpockets and brawlers dominated, and the fair was discontinued in 1855.

Incidentally, 41 Cloth Fair, built between 1597 and 1614, 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.

From cloth to clothiers: Clothier Street (also known once as Crab Court and Carter Street), near Houndsditch has a connection to the rag trade that goes back to Elizabethan times when it was famous as a gathering area for “sellers of old apparel”. An official Clothes Exchange was established there in 1875 and the current name was assigned in 1906.

Petticoat Lane viewNot far away is Middlesex Street, otherwise known as Petticoat Lane. The earlier, 17th-century, name could be from silk weavers, who would have made petticoats, and who settled in the area; or from the secondhand clothes dealers who had begun to trade in the lane even back then.

Henry Mayhew, a 19th-century social researcher, journalist, and playwright, said of the lane that to look down it was “to look down a vista of many-coloured garments”. Less poetically, FH Habben, a contemporary of Mayhew, and a somewhat curmudgeonly scholar of London’s streets, stated firmly that the name was “The English form, I presume, of petit court, the little short lane.”

Fashion Street is nothing to do with fashion but takes its name from the Fasson brothers, Thomas and Lewis, who owned the land upon which the street was built in the 1650s. On second thought, there is also a clothing connection of sorts: Thomas was a skinner.

Hanger Lane in West London was called Hanger Hill in 1710; it was the site of a wood called ‘le Hangrewood’ in the 14th century. The word comes from the Old English ‘hangra’, meaning a wooded hill with clinging steep slopes.

Hat & Mitre Court, little more than a slight gap between buildings, doubles up on the headgear theme, as ‘mitre’ is an ecclesiastical hat of sorts. The second half of the name comes from an 18th-century tavern called the Mitre, a common tavern name, especially in areas, such as this (the priory of St John was nearby), with a large ecclesiastical population.

Why hat as well is not clear , though it was also common in signs, both for hatters’ shops and for taverns. 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.

From head to foot with Hosier Lane, which is exactly as it sounds. In the 14th century the hosiers lived and worked here, making their age’s equivalent of today’s trousers: fashionable garments that replaced the robes of previous generations. These hose were brightly dyed, often with legs in contrasting colours.

The houses in the lane were, at one time, nearly all built of timber, probably dating back to the 17th century. There was a barber’s shop on the corner, in which was displayed a dagger said to be the one with which Walworth killed Wat Tyler, virtually on that spot.

Keeping up with the clothes theme, in the 18th century, the lane was a resort spot during the time of Bartholomew Fair, when “all the houses were made public for tippling”.

Sadly, Naked Boy Court no longer exists, but takes its name from a sign that was supposed to have been a comment on the rapidly-changing fashions of the time. Apparently the sign painters had so much difficulty keeping up with them that the artist responsible for this one didn’t even try.

Silk Street apparently comes from the silk weaving carried on in 17th-century London largely by French refugees who settled in the Spitalfields area. By the 19th century they had been joined by their English counterparts from the north, who set up silk factories. Many of them lived in this street, which was finally named in recognition of that fact.

Skinners LaneSkin Market Place behind the Globe Theatre takes its names from London’s (legal) skin trade: “the skins from nearly all the sleep slaughtered in London” were sold in the market here. Skinners Lane on the other side of the Thames, was known as Maiden Lane and renamed for much the same reason, except that the skins in this case were furs.

There is also a Skinner Street; although one theory is that in the early 19th century an Alderman Skinner was the driving force behind building the street, it is more likely that it is named because in 1630 eight acres of land were bequeathed to the Worshipful Company of Skinners by John Meredith.

Wardrobe Terrace cropWardrobe Place and Wardrobe Terrace take their name from a house that belonging to Sir John Beauchamp was purchased in 1359 by Edward II for use as the storeroom for the royal clothing worn on state occasions. In Shakespeare’s will he bequeathed, to his daughter, land near the Wardrobe.

Weaver Street, like Silk Street, is named for the weaving industry that became prevalent in this area, especially after the 19th century. There is also a Weavers Lane, on the south bank of the Thames, probably so named for the same reason.

Whalebone CourtFinally, Whalebone Court, according to an 18th-century source, was so called because whalebone was boiled there, presumably in preparation for it being made into corsets.

London’s livery companies and street names

Throgmorton pillarYesterday’s post touched on the Drapers Company, so I think it’s time to start taking a look at the City of London livery companies, inextricably linked into London’s history and to many of its famous streets (or unusual street names). They are also linked to a common expression – ‘at sixes and sevens’ – and a curious pub name, both of which are explained later in this post.

The Drapers Company has a hall at one end of Throgmorton Avenue; at the other end is the hall of the Carpenters Company. (To give them their proper names, they are the Worshipful Company of Drapers (number 12 in order of precedence, and we’ll get to that shortly) and the Worshipful Company of Carpenters (number 26).

Livery companies can be seen as early trade associations, incorporated under Royal Charter, with some of them dating back to medieval times. In 1515 an order of precedence was set, with the top 12 still referred to as the Twelve Great Livery Companies. Between 1746 and 1926 no new companies were created; those post-1926 are considered the modern livery companies.

The livery companies were powerful bodies in their time, regulating their respective trades and the practitioners of that trade. Interestingly, the original companies would seem to indicate the importance of textiles in medieval times: of the great twelve companies (see table below), five are textile related in some way; number 13 in order of precedence is the Worshipful Company of Dyers, and there is also a Worshipful Company of Weavers. The twelve great companies are:

  1. Worshipful Company of Mercers
  2. Worshipful Company of Grocers
  3. Worshipful Company of Drapers
  4. Worshipful Company of Fishmongers
  5. Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths
  6. Worshipful Company of Skinners/Merchant Taylors
  7. Worshipful Company of Merchant Taylors/Skinners
  8. Worshipful Company of Haberdashers
  9. Worshipful Company of Salters
  10. Worshipful Company of Ironmongers
  11. Worshipful Company of Vintners
  12. Worshipful Company of Clothworkers

The Skinner and Taylors have no fixed order of precedence; instead they swap annually between sixth and seventh. This comes about because of a long-standing dispute about which was granted a charter first; both received charters in 1327 but there is with no proof as to which was earlier. The dispute, apparently, eventually reached bloodshed and was taken to the Lord Mayor of London. He decreed that the respective Masters should be entertained to dinner by each other’s company annually and that each company should alternate the ranks of sixth and seventh from year to year.

This is often said to have originated the expression ‘at sixes and sevens’, (though some sources say it is more likely to have come from dicing).

So that’s the potted history of livery companies; now here are some connections, however tenuous, between the livery companies and some of the street names that have adorned this blog.

Garlick Hill cropGarlick Hill, where the Worshipful Company of Leathersellers’ Company is based. The company is ranked fifteenth in the order of precedence and was founded by royal charter in 1444 with authority to control the sale of leather within the City.

Mincing Lane cropMincing Lane, where the Worshipful Company of Cordwainers make their home in the Clothworkers’ Hall (their own hall was destroyed in the Blitz). The company, which was granted a Royal Charter in 1439, is one of the oldest, dating back to at least 1272. Cordwainers make “fine soft leather shoes and other luxury footwear articles”. The name comes from the soft leather, or cordwain, that its members used; this originated from Cordoba in Spain. And, yes, Jimmy Choo is a member of the Cordwainers.

EAS_3880Elephant and Castle, where theories about its name include the emblem of the Worshipful Company of Cutlers (number 18 on the list). The Cutlers are now based in Warwick Street but their original hall (destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666) was in what is now Cloak Lane.

EAS_4136St Mary Axe, where the the John Stow Memorial Service is held in the church of St Andrew Undershaft. Stow was a member of the Worshipful Company of Merchant Taylors and that august body organizes the biannual service, which includes the ceremonial changing of the quill.

Threadneedle Street, which takes its name from the Worshipful Company of Needlemakers, and where the Merchant Taylors once had their hall.

The Swan with Two Necks (ok, cheating; it’s a pub name, rather than a street name, but so what? it’s a great name), which takes its name from the Worshipful Company of Vintners and the practice of swan upping. The Vintners, along with the Dyers and the ruling monarch, are the only people or bodies allowed to own swans on the Thames.

Pudding LanePudding Lane, home to the first great hall of the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries (not a typo, it is the Society and not the Company). The hall, like so many other halls and London landmarks, was destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666 and was later rebuilt in Blackfriars Lane. The Apothecaries also have a connection with the British Museum and the Chelsea Physic Garden, which has an entrance in Swan Walk and therefore a connection with the famous Doggett Coat and Badge race, which is organized by the Worshipful Company of Fishmongers.

Petticoat Lane viewWeaver Street and Petticoat Lane, with connections to The Worshipful Company of Weavers, which, while it is number 42 in precedence, received its charter in 1155, making it the oldest recorded City Livery Company.

And last, at least for now, Ironmonger Lane, with connections to the Worshipful Company of Ironmongers (which has its hall in Aldersgate StreetAldersgate Street) and The Worshipful Company of Mercers, which has its hall in the lane. The first Mercers’ Hall was off Cheapside but was – you guessed it – destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666.

More on livery companies in the next (or at least a future) post.

Pierogis, Piccadilly, and petticoats in London

Petticoat Lane view(And Sigourney Weaver, as promised.)

The wonderful website Party Excuses says that today is National Pierogy Day, and who am I to argue? The pierogy, or pierogi, is part of the Polish cuisine, so it’s not too much of a stretch to Poland Street in London’s Soho district.

The street was once part of a patch of land used as horse pasture by its 16th-century owner and it would appear that Poland Street is on the site of what was once called Little Gelding’s Close. Early in the 17th century, Little Gelding’s Close, along with 19 other acres of land, was sold to Robert Baker, the builder of Piccadilly Hall.

The name of Poland Street first appears in 1689, deriving from an inn called King of Poland. It is assumed that the pub was named in commemoration of the victory of John Sobieski, King of Poland, over the Turks in 1683.

The poet Percy Shelley once lodged in Poland Street.

There is a nearby street once called King Street, presumably also in commemoration of said victory. It has since been renamed Kingly Street and renaming of streets leads us nicely into Sigourney Weaver.

Today marks Ms Weaver’s 65th birthday and, yes, there is a connection, however tenuous, between that fine actress and a street in London. Well, ok, there is a Weaver Street (near Shuttle Street) in Spitalfields, and those streets do reflect the fact that the silk weaving industry was once predominant there.

But that’s too easy. Another weaver connection is that of Petticoat Lane, about a mile from Weaver Street. Despite the fact that the lane was once a “filthy and wretched street”, according to James Elmes, who wrote A Topographical Dictionary of London and Its Environs, it did once benefit from nearby pleasant fields.

The gentry flocked to build their houses in these relatively rural surroundings, but were soon ousted by an “influx of the French Refugees in the reign of Louis XIV, it became the residence of the lowest class of their weavers”.

(A bit of a slur on the weavers, perhaps, because in 1155 the Weavers’ Company received  its charter and it is the oldest recorded City Livery Company.)

So the name, dating back to the 17th century, could be from the silk weavers, who would have made petticoats, and who settled in the area; or from the secondhand clothes dealers who had begun to trade in the lane even back then. By the 19th century the lane was, said Henry Mayhew, a 19th-century social researcher, journalist, and playwright,  “essentially the old clothes district”, and to look down the lane at the time was “to look down a vista of many-coloured garments”.

The reason for changing a perfectly good name is, presumably, Victorian prudery that deemed women’s undergarments an unsuitable item for a street name. This wasn’t the first time its name was changed, however: early names were Berwardes Lane (from a local landowner) in the 14th century and Hog Lane in the 16th century (because, like Huggin Hill, it ran through a pig farm.

FH Habben, an outspoken, and sometimes downright curmudgeonly-sounding, 19th-century London historian, who wrote extensively on the city’s street names, was somewhat outraged at the name change, calling it an “instance of inappropriate name change”. He, however, ignored the whole rag trade, stating firmly that the name came from “The English form, I presume, of petit court, the little short lane.”

(Maybe Habben would have been somewhat mollified to know that the street is still better known as Petticoat Lane than Middlesex Street.)

Oh, yes, it was called Middlesex Street because it once formed a boundary between the city of London and the country of Middlesex (which now exists in a different form).