Edgar Allen Poe, Will Ferrell, and the Grand Old Duke of York

Seething Lane signToday’s post is in honour of Edgar Allan Poe, who died on this day in 1849; perhaps his most famous poem was ‘The Raven’. Although it no longer exists, there was once a Black Raven Passage, which led out of Seething Lane.

Will Ferrell fans will appreciate the Scandinavian symbolism of the raven, which was sacred to Odin: in Anchorman, Ron Burgundy exclaims, “Great Odin’s raven!” Despite its worldwide reputation as a bird of ill omen, the raven in Christian symbolism represents God’s providence – an allusion to the raven that fed Elijah.

The raven was also an old Scottish badge and a Jacobite symbol, and is significant in many cultures – not least of which is London. There is a superstition surrounding the famous ravens of the Tower of London: “If the Tower of London ravens are lost or fly away, the Crown will fall and Britain with it.” For more on those ravens, there is a great article in the Fortean Times.

Mary Anne Clarke wikipedia
Mary Anne Clarke

The passage may have been the birthplace of the scandalous Mary Anne Clarke, who was, eventually, the mistress of Frederick, the Grand Old Duke of York.

Mary Anne, the daughter of a bricklayer, married a man called Clarke, whom she left when he went bankrupt. It appears that she was able to work her way into the circle of the rich and famous through liaisons with various well-to-do men.

By 1803 she had taken a large house in London and was entertaining in lavish fashion, using the name of Mrs Clarke. Once she had become Frederick’s mistress, and he did not keep her in the style that she felt was her due, Mary Anne began to obtain money from officers in the army in return for using her influence with the Duke of York, who was then Commander in Chief of the army.

A scandal ensued and charges were brought, though not proved against the Duke. He resigned his post (but was later reinstated) and broke it off with Mary Anne. She threatened to publish the letters he had written to her, and 10,000 copies of her memoirs were printed.

The Duke, however, paid her debts and gave her £400 to burn the books.

Cusack The Raven
John Cusack as Edgar Allan Poe

Back, briefly, to the raven: it seems that Shakespeare mentions the raven more than any other bird and, by happy coincidence, the screenplay of a 2012 US thriller movie based on Poe’s poem was co-written by Hannah Shakespeare.

(And, à propos of nothing other than blogger’s prerogative, that movie stars John Cusack, a particular favourite.)

Not what they seem: London’s gross street names

Pudding LaneMoving on from the scatological, today is the turn of some of the names that aren’t what they seem. And what they are can sometimes be a bit yukky.

Take, for instance, Pudding Lane, which was where the Great Fire of 1666 started. Given that the fire started in a baker’s house (the king’s baker), pudding sounds like something you’d find at a baker, right? Wrong. The lane, once part of the meat centre of London, earlier had the name of Red Rose Lane, but it was on the route where the ‘puddings’ – parcels of offal – were transported to be thrown into the river.

Seething Lane signAlong those lines is Seething Lane, which is nothing to do with anger. There are other theories as to the derivation of the name, but the one that suits today’s theme is that the area was once said to be a centre for making soap and glue; this involved the boiling of animal skins and the smelly, steaming cauldrons gave rise to the name of Seething. Samuel Pepys lived here and was awoken one night by his maid who told him of the great fire that was raging to the west.

Like Pudding Lane, the derivation of Bunhill Row’s name is not as appetizing as it might first appear. It comes from the nearby fields of the same name (Bunhill Fields, where Daniel Defoe was buried), originally Bone Hill Fields. The fields were a burial ground dating from 1549 when a thousand carts full of bones from the over-crowded charnel houses at St Paul’s dumped their loads there.However, the name was in use before then, so it seems likely that people had historically taken advantage of the marshy land there for dumping various items, presumably including bones.

Huggin HillLess disgusting, but still not what people might think (and probably an equal contender for the Animal London names), is Huggin Hill, a popular sign for cuddling couples looking for a photo opportunity. It is, however, nothing to do with cuddling or hugging. It was Hoggenlane in the 14th century, probably from the old English ‘hoggene’ – a lane where hogs were kept.

Along the same lines, and also a contender for Animal London, is Swain’s Lane in Highgate, which is, alas, nothing to do with gallant pastoral gentlemen. In the 15th century it was known as ‘Swayneslane’ but later forms of the name show bluntly its derivation: for a long time it was more commonly known as Swine Lane.

Golden Square, which works for London’s gemstones and precious metals street names category, yet to come in this blog, is also nothing to do with what the name suggests. The site upon which the square stands was known as Gelding’s Cross in the early 17th century when the land was used for farming. (Like Bunhill Fields, the square was also a plague burial pit).