Pubs, pelicans and the Prospect of Whitby

Pelicans in St James’s Park

I’ve finished watching ‘Whitechapel’, which wasn’t as bad as I thought it might be – in fact, I was strangely deflated when it ended. I think the show was cancelled unexpectedly so there wasn’t any neat wrapping up of loose ends.

Still, the show did thrown out some interesting references to London history – though I was a little taken aback when in one episode the camera kept showing the street sign for Old Peppermill Street, which doesn’t appear to exist. Pinchin Street, which was covered recently in this blog, also made an appearance in the context of unidentified female torsos being found in the river.

Towards the end there was a shot of the Prospect of Whitby pub in Wapping, with Pelican Stairs alongside it. The stairs would have been part of the network of stairs used by watermen to taxi passengers across and along the Thames.

Back to the pub, which dates back to 1520 and lays claim to being the oldest riverside pub in London. Its original name was The Pelican but, because it was the haunt of smugglers and cut-throats.

See what happens when you start wondering about London street names? I then wondered why a a pub in London, even a waterside one, would have been called Pelican. There is a Pelican pub in Gloucester that dates back to the 17th century and one in Wales called, intriguingly, The Pelican in her Piety. That gave me the clue: the pelican is not uncommon in heraldry: a pelican plucking at her breast and letting the blood to fall into the mouths of her chicks symbolises Christ feeding his flock with his blood.

The ship Sir Francis Drake used to sail around the world was originally called the Pelican. When he reached the Pacific Ocean, Drake renamed his ship the Golden Hind to honour both Sir Christopher Hatton, whose coat of arms features that animal.  Hatton was a major investor in Drake’s voyage. That, however, was all after 1520.

There have been pelicans in St James’s park since they introduced were to the park in 1664 as a gift from the Russian Ambassador.

Oh, yes, the Prospect of Whitby came from another boat name.