London’s number streets: from Four Dials to Twelvetrees Crescent

We left off our numbers post from one to three with quite a few ‘three’ streets, but the other numbers are not as much in evidence. And I regret to say that of many of the ones I have found, the name is the only piece of information I have.

Four Seasons Close in Tower Hamlets, for instance, near the Blackwall Tunnel, is near Redwood Close and Primrose Close, so maybe there is some kind of tenuous horticultural connection.

There is a small lane called Five Acre in north west London, which leads off Lanacre Avenue and is near a North Acre and South Acre. ‘Acre’ in names often designates a street near to, for instance, a farm with ‘acre’ in its name. Presumably that bears some relation to both this name and to Forty Acre Lane in Canning Town.

Fives Court in Southwark is, apparently, a relatively new name, the derivation of which is still a mystery. Unless it’s something to do with ‘fives’ –a handball game that is played on a court.

Also a bit of a mystery is Five Bell Alley, which leads off Three Colt Street, a fairly major road in the Limehouse Area (and near to the alarmingly named Grenade Street). Presumably it takes its name from a tavern, Five Bells being not uncommon in pub names in nautical terms it means 2:30pm – once pub closing time.

There are quite a few ‘sevens’ in London: Seven Dials, Seven Sea Gardens, Seven Sisters Road, and Seven Stars Yard. Seven Sea Gardens in east London is part of a residential complex on Caspian Wharf, so presumably that accounts for the maritime name. Seven Stars was also a popular tavern name, usually represented either by a plough or by the Plough (or Big Dipper) constellation, which consists of seven stars. There is a Seven Stars pub in Holborn, which is one of the pubs purporting to be London’s oldest.

Seven Dials, which has been covered before in this blog, was an early exercise in town planning (and possibly getting it wrong). In the 17th century the Master of the Royal Mint, Sir Thomas Neale, planned seven streets radiating from a central point where there was a column with a sun dial on each face. However, the column had only six faces.

Some say the seventh ‘dial’ comes from the column itself; others that the column was commissioned before a change of plan meant there were seven streets instead of six.

Seven Sisters Road and Nine Elms Lane, have been covered in the earlier tree-themed post. Seven Sisters Road south of Finsbury Park takes its name from a tavern called the Seven Sisters. The tavern, in turn, commemorated the fact that, in front of it, stood a circle of elm trees with a walnut tree in the centre. The trees, removed in the 1840s, were supposed to have dated back to around the 14th century, planted on the spot where a martyr had been burned.

Nine Elms Lane, now a major road rather than a lane, runs on the south bank of the Thames and past the New Covent Garden market. It was, however once a country lane that did run past nine elm trees.

Twelvetrees Crescent in Bow is hardly a crescent – being, as it is, a fairly large road that spans the River Lea, but perhaps it was once in a rural area with lots of trees.

Beggars, a Bubble, and the six faces of Seven Dials

This day in London history: on 4 December 1732, John Gay, English poet (Beggar’s Opera), died aged 47. John Gay is perhaps most famous for his satirical ballad opera The Beggar’s Opera, with its central character of Macheath.

John Gay The opera, adapted by Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill, would later become The Threepenny Opera and one of its songs, Mack the Knife, was recorded by various people including Louis Armstrong and Frank Sinatra, but was a big hit for Bobby Darin.

Macheath was based on a notorious highwayman of the time, Jack Sheppard, who often sought refuge in what was, at the time, one of London’s criminal quarters and a sanctuary for thieves and debtors. The area, which lives on in Mint Street, was called the Mint, former site of a Royal Mint established by Henry VIII. There is also a character called Matt of the Mint in The Beggar’s Opera.

The Beggar’s Opera had been suggested by two of Gay’s friends, Jonathan Swift and Alexander Pope, and Swift also provided ideas for another of Gay’s works: Trivia, or the Art of Walking the Streets of London, a poem in three books. One of the places Gay mentions in this poem is Seven Dials:

Where famed St Giles’s ancient limits spread
     An in-rail’s column rears its lofty head
Here to seven streets seven dials count their day
    And from each other catch the circling ray

seven dialsSeven Dials was an early exercise in town planning: in 1693 the Master of the Royal Mint, Sir Thomas Neale, purchased a meadow in what is now the heart of London’s Soho. He planned seven streets radiating from a central point where there was a six-sided column with a sun dial on each face.

Some say the seventh ‘dial’ comes from the column itself; others that the column was commissioned before a change of plan meant there were seven streets instead of six.

The column was taken down 1773 when a false rumour circulated to the effect that money was hidden in the base, and it was re-erected in Weybridge Green.

Gay was one of the victims of the disastrous ‘South Sea Bubble’ scheme, speculation that ruined the purses and lives of thousands of investors. It started with the South Sea Company, given exclusive trading rights first with South America and then the South Seas. The company originally planned to convert the National Debt to a lower rate of interest and then take it over completely.

Money poured into the scheme, resulting in gross over-speculation and the eventual bursting of the bubble. It was not just the unwary investors who were ruined financially: Members of Parliament were shown to have taken bribes and the bubble was a national scandal.