Hats, mitres, and poison in London’s streets

Well, it seems today is Mad Hatter Day, a day to celebrate silliness. Apparently it dates back to 1986 and was the idea of a group of computer people in Colorado. It takes its name from the fact that in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland the Mad Hatter’s hat has a slip of paper that reads ‘10/6’. From 10 shillings and sixpence to October 6. Simple.

In keeping with the tone of the Mad Hatter and silliness, there is a Batty Street in East London.The origin of this name, which conjures up images of ditzy aunts, is uncertain; there was a William Batty who developed property in London so it could have been named for him.

However, a more sinister association with the street is that of a locked room murder that took place in 1887. Miriam Angel, one of the lodgers in a building at number 18 Batty Street was found dead in her locked room. She had been killed by the very unpleasant method of having nitric acid poured down her throat. Another lodger, Israel Lipski, was discovered under her bed with acid burns in his mouth, so it was a pretty safe bet he was the culprit. He professed his innocence at first but confessed later.

From the mad bit to the hatter bit, and there is a Hat & Mitre Court, which is virtually opposite Passing Alley, near Smithfield Market, and is little more than a slight gap between buildings. There was an 18th-century tavern here called the Mitre, a once-common name especially in areas, such as this, with a large ecclesiastical population.

The hat was one of those objects common in signs – first, and not unnaturally, for hatters’ shops, and later also for inns. Why the combination of the hat and mitre (which is a type of hat in that it is ecclesiastical headgear) is uncertain. Possibly a new landlord of the Mitre once had a tavern called the Hat and was reluctant to give up the name and possibly lose customers. Combining the names of two taverns was a ruse often employed for landlords to get the best of both worlds as far as customers went.

Another hat with an ecclesiastical connection is Cardinal Cap Alley, named for the Cardinal Cap, or Cardinal’s Hat, one of the licensed brothels of Bankside.