From Bleeding Heart Yard to Snow Hill: London streets in The Ingoldsby Legends

I keep promising to look at myth and legend in London street names; that’s still on the cards, but let’s start with The Ingoldsby Legends, a 19th-century collection of myths, legends, ghost stories and poetry written (and invented) for the purposes of satirizing topics of the time. One of these ‘legends’ was ‘The House Warming!! A legend of Bleeding Heart Yard’ and purports to explain the name of this little courtyard.

The story centres around the beautiful wife of Sir Christopher Hatton, who was a real person and a favourite of Queen Elizabeth I (though he never married). Alice Fanshawe had sold her soul to the devil in order to advance herself and her husband, with the result that the queen confiscated the place of the Bishop of Ely to give to the couple – hence the housewarming party.

While the festivities were going on, the devil, who had become lazy, realized that Alice’s account was long overdue, and he hastened to the party, where he bounds in and capers around, knocking over furniture and scattering the food and drink. He grasps Alice’s hand (which caused her arm to shrivel), and leads her in a frantic dance that ends with them performing a grand pirouette from which they never return.

The following morning, the house is in ruins, there is a hole the shape of a hoof in the roof (that sounds like something out of Dr Seuss), and there is no sign, then or ever, of poor Lady Hatton.

“But out in the court-yard – and just in that part
Where the pump stands – lay bleeding a LARGE HUMAN HEART!”

There were also traces of blood and brains on the pump, as though a head had been smashed against it. The pump was replaced, yet on some moonlit nights a ‘Lady in White’ could be seen pumping endlessly and fruitlessly.

“And hence many passengers now are debarr’d
From proceeding at nightfall through Bleeding Heart Yard!”

Apart from telling us how the yard got its name, Ingoldsby mentions various other streets, all of which deserve some mention as part of our legend theme.

Ely Place, once a seat of the Bishop of Ely, was indeed occupied by Sir Christopher Hatton, and was famous for its gardens, which produced a fine crop of strawberries. Shakespeare makes reference to this in Richard III, when Richard says, “My lord of Ely, when I was last in Holborn,I saw good strawberries in your garden there.”

When guests are arriving at (and fleeing from) the Hattons’ housewarming party, the streets along which they travel are listed: the Strand, Chancery Lane, Shoe Lane, Cheapside, St Mary-le-Bow, Fewtar’s (corrupted to Fetter) Lane, Bishopsgate Street, Dowgate Hill, Budge Row, Snore Hille (which we have since whitewashed to Snow), Holborn Hill, Fleet Ditch, Harp Alley, and Gray’s Inn.

Let’s look at them all in order, starting with the Strand. This name is of Saxon origin, meaning ‘water’s edge” and is mentioned by name in the Saxon Chronicle; apparently it is recorded that this is where Earl Godwin and his son Harold drew up their land forces in the insurrection that they headed against Edward the Confessor in 1052.

Chancery Lane takes its name either from the fact that a building in the lane was used to store the Rolls of Chancery, the Chancellors’ official documents. The present name came into use during the reign of Elizabeth I and could also have been an abbreviation of Chancellors Lane. Another theory is that the name comes from ‘cancelli’ – lattice screen – which once divided the court of Chancery from the court of Common Pleas when they shared the Law Courts in Westminster.

There is an early reference to Shoe Lane as ‘Scholanda’ (Show-land) is taken to mean that the lane was once a place for the setting out and showing of water-borne merchandise to tax collectors and customers. Scholanda could also, however, have meant ‘land shaped like a shoe’; the lane itself is not shoe-shaped but it may have led to a piece of land that was. Alternatively, it could have taken its name from an ancient well – Showelle – at the north end of the lane.

Cheapside comes from the Anglo-Saxon ‘ceap’, to buy or barter. West Cheap, as it was known, to distinguish it from Eastcheap, was one of the busiest thoroughfares in London and the city’s main food market. The medieval grocery shopper would have gone there for staples such as Bread, Milk, Honey, and Fish, and the streets that lead off Cheapside were named for their specialities. 

St Mary-le-Bow is the church in Bow Lane, destroyed in the Great Fire and rebuilt by Christopher Wren. Traditionally someone is only a Cockney if they are born within the sound of the church’s bells. The name of Bow Lane has nothing to do with its shape: the church was originally called St Mary de Arcubus from the arches, which are shaped like bows, upon which it was built.

The church of St-Mary-le-Bow

Fetter Lane we looked at not long ago, but at the risk of boring with repetition, here are some of the possible derivations of the name. The lane was once a spot where people in various stages of inebriation would congregate, passing on cheery greetings and advice to passersby. As Stow puts it, the lane was “so called of Fewters (or idle people) lying there, as in a way leading to gardens, but the same is now of latter years on both sides built through with many fair houses”.

There is also the theory that the name could have come from the ‘faitours’ – fortune tellers who were prevalent in medieval and Elizabeth times. The name may have come from the lance vests worn on cuirasses (also known as fetters) because of the armorers whose workshops were located there. One final theory is that the name derived from ‘felter’ – makers of felt also carried on their business in the lane.

Bishopsgate was one of the seven main London gates and the street is one of the longest in the City of London. The gate itself was named for Bishop Erkenwald, who became Bishop of London in 675.

Dowgate Hill (or Downgate) may have derived from the fact that the River Walbrook, once a main water supply for the City of London, flowed down the hill and through a gate into the Thames. The lovely Mr Habben, however, eschews this theory and states that, “it is an inscrutable corruption of, or deviation from, the original name, which it would now be difficult and inconclusive to conjecture, though Dock-Gate is tempting.” Sir Francis Drake lived in Dowgate Hill. 

Budge Row, which no longer exists, was the centre of dealers of ‘budges’, or fine lambskin fur, used for the edging of scholastic gowns. Apparently the word ‘budget’ comes from a bag made from lambskin, which may have been used to hold revenue, and transferred its meaning to the contents.

Snow Hill we covered in a recent seasonal post, which you can read here but, as the legend says, it was once called Snore Hylle and could have come from a Scandinavian trader called Snorro, or from the Celtic word ‘suadh’, a brook.

Holborn Hill comes from ‘Hol-Burne, the part of the old River Fleet that flowed under what is now Holborn Viaduct – the ‘burne’, or river, in the hollow. Fleet Ditch, similarly, took its name from the River Fleet; fleet comes from an Anglo-Saxon word meaning a tidal inlet.

Harp Alley takes its name from a 17th-century inn that once stood here. It is now a court off Farringdon Street. 

Finally, Gray’s Inn, which takes its name from the town house of Lord Gray of Wilton, which was leased to lawyers in the 16th century. Inn once meant a large house and was used for the grand residences of the nobility.

Bow bells, elbows, and Dick Whittington

On 13 October 1397 Sir Richard Whittington was first elected Mayor of London. (That is, Lord Mayor of the City of London: a post that still exists as opposed to the Mayor of London, which is a post encompassing Greater London.)

There is much in the way of legend surrounding Dick Whittington; the main points of the folklore are that he was a poor boy from the north; that he went to London with his faithful cat to seek his fortune; that he attempted to flee the city in order to escape a menial job where he was beaten; and that he was persuaded to return by the sound of the Bow Bells promising him that he would be Mayor of London.

That’s all very well, and I hate to be a spoilsport, but it appears that the real-life Whittington was born in Gloucestershire in the Forest of Dean into a wealthy family and sent to London to learn the trade of mercer (cloth merchant). And there is no evidence that he owned a cat.

Even more disappointing, there is no real consensus on where he is supposed to reached before he was lured back by the sound of the bells. The most popular version is Highgate, and there is a Whittington Stone at the foot of Highgate Hill to commemorate the event. Other versions say Bunhill or Holloway.

The bells are the bells of St Mary-le-Bow in Bow Lane; tradition dictates that someone is only a Cockney if they are born within the sound of those bells. That then begs the question as to how Dick Whittington managed to hear the bells all the way from Highgate. (Incidentally, unlike Bow Street, the name of Bow Lane has nothing to do with its shape: the church was originally called St Mary de Arcubus from the arches upon which it was built.)

All of which brings us, in a suitably roundabout way, to Elbow Lane in the City of London, now called, less interestingly, College Street. In the 16th century it a street that ran west and then suddenly turned south, according to London historian John Stow, and was “therefore of that bending called Elbow Lane”.

The lane later became Great and Little Elbow Lanes and then, in 1839, was renamed College Street to commemorate the college established by Whittington. That was the College of St Spirit and St Mary; Sir Richard felt that the founding of the college would ensure that his soul would be well received by the right parties after his death. (The college was yet another institution dissolved by Henry VIII.)