From Brook Street to Quaggy Walk: river-related London street names

Given the recent activity of the River Wye, during which it was in closer proximity to my house that I would have liked, I thought I would take a short break from Hogarth and focus on a few of the London street names with river connections. London’s rivers, part of the transportation system, provided boundaries for ecclesiastical property in Saxon times and were a source of water for much of the city.

Let’s start with Fleet Street, which takes its name from ‘flēot’, an Anglo-Saxon word meaning a tidal inlet. The Fleet still flows, but underground, and it is used as a sewer. This continues a practice started in the 14th century when butchers used the river for cleaning out animal entrails and others followed suit by dumping refuse into it. Pudding Lane was once part of the meat centre of London and was known earlier as Red Rose Lane; its newer name arose from the face that it was on the route where the ‘puddings’ – parcels of offal – were transported to be thrown into the river.

While ‘fleet’ was nothing to do with speed, Quaggy River was so called because it moved sluggishly – like ‘quagmire’. The river, which was part of the bounds of the Manor of Bankhurst, gives its name to Quaggy Walk in Blackheath. The name is relatively recent: until 1863 it was known as Lee Water.

There was an Effra River in South London; technically, there still is but it is now underground. It gives its name to Effra Road (also Effra Court and Parade) in Brixton. The name is another relatively recent one, and there are varying opinions as to its derivation. One view is that it is is a corruption of ‘Heathrow’, a former manor of some 70 acres south of present day Coldharbour Lane and east of present day Effra Road. The name Heathrow meant just that: a row of houses along a heath.

Coldharbour Lane is a fairly common place and street name in the UK. In this case it is in memory of an ancient manor called Coldherbergh – Cold Abbey. ‘Harbour’ derives from the Middle English word meaning ‘shelter’, and cold harbours are considered to have been wayside shelters that provided for travellers a roof over their heads, and nothing more.

Knightsbridge takes its name from a bridge which stood, for centuries, over the Westbourne river. In earlier times ‘knight’ was simply a generic term for ‘young man’, usually servants of barons and lords. It was known as a dangerous area, with highwaymen, robbers and cutthroats targeting travellers on the western route out of London. By the 19th century it was well on its way to becoming the affluent area that it is today.

The Westbourne river was originally known as the Kilburn, which in turn derives either from the old English term ‘cyne-burna’ (royal stream) or ‘cyna-burna’ (cattle stream). Or it could have been from ‘Kilnbourn’ because of tile-making in the area. The river enters Hyde Park at what is now the Serpentine. The Serpentine lake was formed in 1730 by building a dam across the Westbourne at the instigation of Queen Caroline, wife of George II, to beautify the royal park.

Jacob’s Well Mews was named for a local resident, Jacob Hinde, who also gave his name to nearby Hinde Street; there was a Jacob’s Well tavern at the end of the mews until 1893. The Tyburn river flowed through the area, which is probably where the water for the well came from. It was in a house in this mews that the young Michael Faraday lived.

The Tyburn River (from ‘teoburna’, or boundary stream) is where a gallows was erected and which served as London’s place of public execution until the 19th century. The site of the old gallows is marked on the ground at Marble Arch, where the Bayswater and Edgware roads meet. (Tyburn features in the recent post on Hogarth and hanging-related streets, which you can read here.)

There is a Tyburn Brook, which is a tributary of the Westbourne; some sources say it is the brook that gives its name to Brook Street, others that it is from the Tyburn River. Former music-related residents of Brook Street include Jimi Hendrix, George Frideric Handel, and the Bee Gees: Barry, Robin, and Maurice Gibb.

Horseferry Road takes its name from a horse ferry, supposedly older than London Bridge, and the only one of its kind allowed in London. At one time communication between the north and south banks of the River Thames was not easy, especially without bridges. The ferry was supposed to have been established when St Peter himself was taken across to consecrate Westminster Abbey and there is a story that once, when Oliver Cromwell was being taken across the river, his coach sank in mid-stream.

Abdication, seals, and Piccadilly

This day in London history: On 11 December 1688 James II is said to have abdicated the throne by throwing the Great Seal of the Realm into the River Thames. However, cynics say that if the story is true, the seal was certainly recovered: his successors, his daughter Mary and her cousin and husband William used the same seal, adapted to show a dual monarchy.

The Great Seal of the Realm is used to symbolize the reigning monarch’s seal of approval on important documents of state. In theory there is one per sovereign but another abdicating king, Edward VIII, who gave up the throne so he could marry Wallis Simpson, never had his own seal. On the other hand, Queen Victoria had to have four as they wore out.

There is a Duke Street that leads off Piccadilly; this was named as a compliment to James Stuart, who was the Duke of York before he was king. Benjamin Franklin used to stay at lodgings in a Duke Street off Oxford Circus, which may or may not have been named after James II; Franklin’s landlady was supposed to have enjoyed his company so much that she reduced his rent by over 50% to lure him to stay on.

Piccadilly itself takes its name from an item of clothing: In the 17th century a ‘pickadil’ was defined as “that round hem or several divisions set together about the skirt of a garment or other thing; also a kind of stiff collar, made in the fashion of a band”.

London and the Great Freeze

This day in London’s history: on 24 November 1434 the River Thames froze over. This was a not uncommon occurrence between the 15th and early 19th century. On this occasion, according to B Lambert, author of ‘The history and survey of London and its environs’:

“In the year 1434 a great frost began on the 24th of November, and held till the 10th of February, following ; whereby the river Thames was so strongly frozen, that all sorts of merchandizes and provisions brought into the mouth of the said river were unladen, and brought by land to the city.”

In later years, there were Frost Fairs held on the Thames; the most memorable of these was in the winter of 1683-1684, known as The Great Freeze, when the Thames was frozen for two months. According to the diarist John Evelyn, “The frost continuing more and more severe, the Thames before London was still planted with booths in formal streets, all sorts of trades and shops furnished and full of commodities, even to a printing press.”

Even more recently (in 2010) the River Wye froze; in December of that year the ice started to melt and crack into pieces that floated downstream.

Frozen Wye Frozen Wye 2

Why London Bridge fell down

This day in London’s history: on the 13th of November 1002, the St Brice’s Day massacre took place. Following a number of years of Danish invasion, King Ethelred the Unready ordered the killing of Danes throughout England; the Danes continued to have a strong presence in England and could be the inspiration behind the nursery rhyme ‘London Bridge is Falling Down’.

By 1014 the Danes had invaded and captured London (causing Ethelred to flee the country) and Denmark and Norway were in conflict. Olaf, King of Norway, sent a fleet up the Thames, which was stopped at the heavily Danish-fortified London Bridge. Not easily thwarted, Olaf had his ships covered with protective wicker work, moved in close to the bridge, attached ropes to the piles and sailed off, bringing the whole thing – complete with armed Danes – down.

It is, unfortunately, possible that this story is not entirely true. However, it sounds good and as such is considered to be the basis for the nursery rhyme.

Olaf also gave his name to Tooley Street in London: the name was recorded as St Olave’s Street at the end of the 16th century; it then became St Tooley’s Street, later Towles Street, and eventually Tooley Street.