From French Ordinary Court to Great Scotland Yard: the six nations in London’s street names

I don’t know why this theme hasn’t occurred to me before, but let me set my stall out immediately and say I was delighted with the Welsh victory on Saturday. For those of my readers overseas who may not get the reference, Wales beat England in the six nations rugby tournament. Emotions run high when those two teams play each other. The other four nations are Scotland, Ireland, France, and Italy.

I wasn’t born in this country, there is Welsh ancestry on my maternal grandmother’s side, and I live close enough to the border that my nearest town is Wales rather than England, so I feel justified in supporting Wales. Not so much my husband, who is English, though he prefers to see a good game than pin his hopes on either team winning. Given the aforementioned proximity to the Wales-England border, there was great support for both sides in our local pub; in fact, I would say red shirts outnumbered white ones.

But I digress. Given the Welsh victory, let’s start with Petty Wales near Tower Hill. The name probably comes the fact that it was the settlement of a Welsh centre (from ‘petit’, French for ‘little’). There is also Petty France, not far from St James’s Park, named similarly for the settlement of French people in the area, but more fun is French Ordinary Court, an intriguing name with a simple explanation.

This small street was given its name because in the 17th century the Huguenots were allowed by the French Ambassador, who had his residence in Crutched Friars, to sell coffee and pastries. They also served fixed price meals; in those days such a meal was called an ‘ordinary’. French Ordinary Court is in good company for interesting names, being not far from Crutched Friars, Seething Lane, and Savage Gardens, among others. But they are all for another time.

And on to Great Scotland Yard, near Whitehall. The term ‘Scotland Yard’ conjures up images of policemen and detective novels and, indeed, London’s Metropolitan police force has long been known as Scotland Yard or just ‘the Yard’. However, the modern building called New Scotland Yard, which serves as headquarters for the police force, is nowhere near Great Scotland Yard.

This name comes from the fact that the Palace of Westminster, which no longer stands, once served as the main residence for the English monarchs – that is, until Henry VIII decided that Whitehall Palace (also gone) would suit him better. A parcel of land belonging to the palace, including a house given by King Edgar to Kenneth III of Scotland in the 10th century, was reserved for royal Scottish visitors and their retinues. Some of the names for spaces between the houses, which had begun to proliferate on this parcel of land known as Scotland were, unimaginatively, things like Great, Middle and Little Scotland Yard. 

England’s Lane in Hampstead in named for one James England, who leased land there from Eton College. Or it could be a corruption of ‘ing-land’ from the Old English ‘ing’, a strip of meadowland. 

There is an Ireland Yard, named for William Ireland, who owed a house there which he sold to William Shakespeare in 1612 (or 1613, depending on who you believe). The house was conveniently close to Playhouse Yard, named for the theatre opened in 1596 by James Burbage. Shakespeare owned a share in the theatre and wanted to be close by for the performances of his plays. By coincidence, there was another William Ireland (known as Samuel Ireland), born in 1775, who was famous – or infamous – as a forger of Shakespearean documents and plays.

I started with Wales, which I support because of my ancestry, so I will finish with Italy. (I feel obliged to support them in sporting matches because my mother’s parents were Italian.) This is a bit embarrassing, though, as I can’t find any Italy or Italian street names in London, so I shall go off on a complete tangent for this one.

Roman Bath Street, once located off Newgate Street between St Martin’s Le Grand and King Edward Street, was originally called Pentecost Lane. In 1679 a Turkish merchant built London’s first Turkish bath here, and the street’s name was changed to Bagnio (Italian for bath) Court. The bath was famous and, as historian John Strype describes it, “Near unto Butcher Hall Lane is the Bagnio, a neat contrived Building after the Turkish mode for that purpose; seated in a large handsome Yard, and at the upper end of Pincock Lane. Much resorted unto for Sweating, being found very good for aches, etc., and approved of by our Physicians.”

Bagnio Court later became Bagnio Street and then Bath Street. In 1885 for some reason it was named Roman Bath Street despite there being no Roman bath connections. In 1869 the houses on the east side were removed for new Post Office buildings and the court has since been engulfed by the BT Centre.

Petty France, Jeremy Bentham, and UCL’s amazing auto-icon

HoundsditchThis blog (and the book-in-progress with which it is associated) promises not just the derivations of London’s street names, but also the ‘rest of the story’: stories of the streets themselves, their residents, and famous (or infamous) people associated with them. So today we are going to look at Jeremy Bentham, who willed his skeleton and body to University College London to be be preserved and displayed.

Bentham, reformer anPetty France cropd philosopher, was born in Houndsditch, lived in Crutched Friars, and died in a house in what is now Petty France (another resident of Petty France was John Cleland, author of the 18th-century erotic novel Fanny Hill). He was a strong believer in the equality of women and a proponent of the theory of Classical Utilitarian, believing that moral virtue lay in the greatest good for the greatest number.

However, his strongest London links could be considered those with University College London, an establishment of which he is (wrongly) considered to be a founder. He was held in high esteem by the actual founders, and can be viewed as, according to UCL, its spiritual father.

The auto-icon. Photo: UCL Bentham Project

But on to the amazing auto-icon: Betham willed (shortly before his death) that his body be dissected, and the skeleton preserved to form the basis of an ‘auto-icon’ upon which his mummified head would rest – the whole to be displayed at the University.

The mummification techniques those days were not up to scratch, and the result was not considered suitable for display. A wax head was created for the auto-icon, and Bentham’s own head, supposedly, rested at his feet for some time, later becoming the object of various pranks. Due to the sensitive nature of displaying human remains, the head was removed in 2002 and put into safe storage.

Bentham’s head. Photo: UCL museums

To this day, Bentham sits at the end of the South Cloisters of the UCL campus, where he can be seen 8am-6pm Monday to Friday. Today was a particularly timely day for this particular blog post, as he was removed from his cabinet for inspection, and was available for member of the public to meet him.

For those unable to meet Mr Bentham in the flesh, the university has developed an amazing virtual auto-icon, which can be viewed here.


Doubling up on London street names

London WallHere’s another fun type of London street names: ones that aren’t the singleton, but are not an alley, road, yard, or any other street-sounding name. For instance, Austin Friars, Bevis Marks, Crutched Friars, London Wall, Perkins Rent, Petty France, and Shad Thames, to name but a few.

Let’s start with Bevis Marks, which leads into Camomile Street in the City of London: the ‘marks’ of the name was just that – a boundary, or something that marked the edge of a property. In this case it was the 12th century mansion and gardens owned by the Abbots of Bury St Edmunds in Suffolk. The modern name is a corruption of Bury’s Marks. The abbey is yet another on the long list of those dissolved by Henry VIII.

Bevis MarksIn keeping with the theme of religion, the nearby Bevis Marks synagogue is the oldest in the UK, though its actual address is Heneage Lane because, according to the synagogue’s official website, “The site of the synagogue was tucked away in a back alley because Jews were not allowed to build on the public thoroughfare. A contract was signed with a builder in 1699 and the synagogue, which has been designated a monument of national importance, was built in 1701.”

There was a synagogue in Creechurch Lane, just off Bevis Marks, at least as early as 1663, when Pepys recorded a visit there.

Petty France cropPetty France takes its name from petit – little – France, because of French settlers there as early as the 15th century. The street, which once housed the Passport Office, is associated with a book of “pernicious tendency”. Other streets were called what they were because, well, that’s what they were, such as Docwras Buildings, from houses built by Thomas Docwra & Son, well-borers. In time others became known as Rents from the people who collected the rents on the buildings, such as Perkins Rents in Victoria, from an unknown Perkins.

Shad ThamesChurches were responsible for many other non-street names, including Shad Thames, which is probably a contraction of St John at Thames; the Priory of St John at Jerusalem owned about 25 acres of land here from the 13th century until the Dissolution. In Oliver Twist, Bill Sikes lived and died on Jacob’s Island, east of Shad Thames.

Similarly, Austin Friars takes its name from a dissolved friary of Augustian monks; the friary covered the area between London Wall and Throgmorton Street.

Drapers plaqueReaders of the excellent Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel will know it as the home of Thomas Cromwell; it is where, when Thomas Cromwell wished to extend his nearby garden, he dug up the house belonging to John Stow’s father, put it on rollers and moved it out of the way without any warning to Stow senior. After Cromwell’s death the Drapers’ Company – the third of the livery companies – took over Cromwell’s house along with the nefariously extended garden.

Crutched FriarsCrutched Friars, known as Hart Street prior to the 18th century, also takes its current name from a holy order, the Crossed Friars, an Augustinian order that began in Bologna in 1169 and was established in London by Ralph Hosiar and William Sabernes in 1298. The name derived from the friars’ habits, which were blue with, usually, a red cross on the back.

The monastery fell, as did so many others in the reign of Henry VIII (the order was then suppressed by the Pope in 1656). Henry granted the land to Sir Thomas Wyatt who built a mansion on the site. Later it was used as a carpenter’s yard, a tennis court, and the Navy Office where Pepys worked.

Passports, Parliamentarians, and Fanny Hill

Petty France cropThe  Moonwalk London 2014 route goes through Westminster and so today we look at Petty France. The name is fairly straightforward: from petit – little – France, because of French settlers there as early as the 15th century. Nestling close to Parliament Square and the seat of government, it was, for many years, the home of the London passport office; the office relocated in 2002. Jeremy Bentham plaqueFamous residents of the street included Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart Mill, and William Hazlitt. John Milton also had a “pretty garden house” there, from 1652, when he was secretary to Oliver Cromwell and starting work on Paradise Lost, to the Restoration of 1660. At that time, as a supporter of the Parliamentarians, he had to make himself scarce from the re-established monarchy in the form of Charles II, whose father Cromwell had beheaded.

Fanny Hill
An early edition of Fanny Hill

The most colourful and infamous resident was the novelist John Cleland (1709-17899, who died there, in obscurity, at the age of 82. Cleland, who is said to have spent a fair amount of time in debtors’ prisons, made his mark and his money in 1750 when his Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure (better known as Fanny Hill) was published. The book (of “pernicious tendency”) was a bestseller and brought the publishers £10,000 (according to some calculations, as much as £15,000,000 today) in profits. Cleland himself earned 20 guineas, or around £80,000).

Fanny Hill whips
An illustration from the book: Fanny Hill whips Mr Barville

Money notwithstanding, the privy council was not amused and summoned Cleland to explain himself. He pleaded poverty as his excuse for the scandalously indecent book, and the president of the council granted him an annuity of £100 (around £20,000) on the condition that he never again wrote that kind of book. If you want to support Walk the Walk and its efforts on behalf of breast cancer charities, you can sponsor me by visiting my fundraising page here.