From Mermaid Court to Unicorn Passage: more myth and legend in London street names

I thought we could return to the myths and legends themes for this post; I do seem to have jumped the gun with the previous post of Elizabethan symbols of pelicans, phoenixes and mermaids.

Just to recap, Phoenix Street 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. Or perhaps it takes its name from a pub.

Mermaid Court in Southwark was once known as Mermaid Alley and also takes its name from a pub, which in 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.

There is also a Unicorn Passage in the Southwark area, now a pedestrian walkway. The children’s theatre took its name from the passage. Unicorns were also popular in signs for taverns and shops; the mystical powers of the unicorn made it particularly popular with chemists and goldsmiths.

Unicorns, or mentions of them, date back to around 400 BC. In some legends, they had the head and body of a horse, legs of a buck, and tail of a lion; the body was white, the head was red, the eyes were blue, and there was a horn that was white at the base, black in the middle, and red at the tip. Nowadays, unicorns are generally pictured as white horses with beautiful, flowing manes, and a single white or gold horn.

There is a Scylla Road near to Heathrow Airport, a strange name for a road leading to a major transport hub given that Scylla and Charybdis were the sea monsters of Homer and a danger to seamen. (There is also a Scylla Road in the Peckham area.) Scylla and Charybdis were later objectified as a rock shoal and a whirlpool.

Scylla was a beautiful nymph who caught the eye of Glaucus, a mortal who ate of a strange herb and was turned into a sea-god. The love Glaucus felt for Scylla was not requited so he turned to the enchantress Circe for help. However, Circe took a liking to Glaucus herself and turned Scylla into a revolting monster with twelve feet and six heads, each with three rows of teeth.

Scylla then dwelt on a rock and would grab sailors when a boat sailed too close to her; in trying to avoid her they ran the risk of being sucked into the nearby whirlpool of Charybdis.

Charybdis also suffered from the jealousies of the Greek gods: she  was the daughter of Poseidon and aided him in his feud with his brother Zeus. Zeus in turn was angered by Charybdis having flooded large areas of land with water, so he turned her into a monster that would eternally swallow sea water, creating whirlpools.

Families, eh?

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.