London’s saintly names: from Catherine Wheel Alley to St Mary Axe

EAS_4059A while ago, this blog featured a religious-themed post, in which I made the brash statement that, “There are too many streets with churches, cathedrals, temples, and saints in their names for me to go into them here.”

As ever, the readers of this blog make it what it is, and @MattF’s recent comment regarding last week’s post was no exception: “Saint Lawrence Jewry (different church, same saint) has a griddle as a weathervane to signify the manner of Saint Lawrence’s death. Perhaps a future post could look at saints?”

That’s a very good idea, so I shall now eat my words, take a look now at some of the saint streets that have graced this blog and, depending on how that goes, maybe seek out some more in the future.

So let’s start with the above-mentioned church of St Lawrence Jewry. Although it is located in Gresham Street, it is near the former medieval Jewish ghetto, which was centred on the street named Old Jewry – hence the second part of the name. It is one of London’s many buildings that was destroyed in the Great Fire of London and rebuilt by Christopher Wren.

The parish was united with that of St. Mary Magdalen, Milk Street, which was not rebuilt. Milk Street was one of the medieval market streets of London, so probably where milk was sold and Gresham Street takes its name from Thomas Gresham, a merchant and financier. By happy coincidence, Sir Thomas More, who was born in Milk Street, preached in the older church of St Lawrence Jewry.

More himself is considered a saint by the Catholic church; he, like St Lawrence, also had a quip for his executioner (having been sentenced to death after annoying). When he mounted a dilapidated and shaky scaffold, he said to the attending official, “I pray you, Mr Lieutenant, see me safe up and for my coming down, I can shift for myself.”

Before we leave Old Jewry, here is another connection with a saint: Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, also known as Thomas à Becket and later a saint and a martyr, was baptised in the church of Becket was baptised in St Mary Colechurch at the southern end of Old Jewry.

EAS_4075Becket was born at the Cheapside end of Ironmonger Lane, known as ‘Ysmongeres Lane’ around the turn of the 12th century and the haunt of ironmongers. The Ironmongers Company had their original hall here until the 15th century, when they acquired buildings in Fenchurch Street and moved there, along with most of the ironmongers.

On the subject of the recent nautical-themed post, @oldmapman mentioned that the symbol for the parish of St Clement Danes is an anchor and @MattF followed up by saying that the anchor symbolism comes from St Clement having supposedly been martyred by being tied to an anchor and thrown overboard.

St Clement Danes is located on Strand, which takes its name from the Anglo-Saxon for shoreline. So a double nautical connection. Incidentally, the Danes bit comes from (this is one of a few theories) the idea that in the 9th century the Danes colonized the village of Aldwych on the river between the City of London and the future site of Westminster. At the time, half of England was Danish and London was on the dividing line between the English and the Danes.

EAS_4133Although it has been featured a few times in this blog, how can we have a saint theme without St Mary Axe? Boringly, some consider the name to have come from a shop with the sign of an axe. But what fun is that? Much better is that the name comes from the church of St Mary the Virgin, St Ursula and the Eleven Thousand Virgins (converted to warehouses after its suppression in the 16th century).

An ancient king of England – Maurius, father of King Cole – gave his daughter Ursula (presumably King Cole’s sister) permission to travel to Germany with her large and chaste retinue (the aforementioned 11,000 virgins) who were then beheaded by Attila and his Huns. Using axes. Apparently an axe was once stored in the church, and gave it the less cumbersome name of St Mary Axe.

Tooley StreetTooley Street is a corruption of St Olave’s Street – which is how it was recorded at the end of the 16th century; it then became St Tooley’s Street and later Towles Street. St Olave, or Olaf, was king of Norway and later became a saint. Before his canonization, however, as king of Norway he was at war with the aforementioned colonizing Danes.

The story goes that in 1014 Olaf’s fleet, on its way up the Thames, was stopped at the heavily Danish-fortified London Bridge. 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 down. It is, unfortunately, possible that this story is not entirely true. However, it sounds good and it is also considered by some to be the basis for the nursery rhyme ‘London Bridge is falling down’.

Catherine Wheel 2Catherine Wheel Alley takes its name from a once-popular inn sign. (During the time of the Puritans, when overtly religious symbols were frowned on, most landlords changed the name to the Cat and Wheel.)

The Catherine Wheel, adopted as part of the arms of the Worshipful Company of Turners’ Company, was a representation of the martyrdom of St Catherine of Alexandria, a Christian virgin, who was martyred in the early 4th century.

Despite the tradition of the Catherine wheel, she was not actually tortured on a wheel, though was the plan of the emperor Maxentius. He was enraged by her refusal to marry him and condemned her to death on a spiked breaking wheel but, at her touch, the wheel was miraculously destroyed. Not to be thwarted in his evil plan, Maxentius finally had her beheaded.

Barley Mow Passage takes its name, some say, from from a relatively comment inn sign – ‘mow’ in this case is a heap, and barley is a major ingredient of beer. Others, however, think that it is a corruption of Bartholomew: the land in the area once belonged to the priory of St Bartholomew. The Priory Church of Saint Bartholomew the Great is London’s oldest surviving church and it is located in Cloth Fair.

From the 12th century to the 19th century a three-day fair – Bartholomew Fair – was held in the Smithfield area; money charged on tolls for goods was a source of income for the priory of St Bartholomew. The fair was, early on, essentially a trade fair for the woollen and drapery industries, with Italian and Flemish cloth merchants.

Bartholomew Fair gradually attracted more and more people, and soon the speciality of cloth was virtually overlooked. Unfortunately, as was not uncommon with many fairs, Bartholomew Fair degenerated into a riotous occasion. By the early 19th century, pickpockets and brawlers dominated, and the fair was discontinued in 1855. (41 Cloth Fair is one of the only houses in the City to have escaped the flames and lays claim to being the oldest London house in existence.)

There is a Bolt Court, which takes its name from the rebus of the Bolton family, who owned a great deal of local property. The 16th-century Prior William Bolton was one of those who did a great deal to restore the nearby church of St Bartholomew: he installed the oriel window (supposedly so that he could keep an eye on the monks).

The rebus is a device once commonly used to denote names by the pictorial representation of words and the Bolton rebus was a birdbolt (a short blunt arrow used to kill birds without piercing them) through a tun (a large barrel or fermenting vat). There is still an example of this rebus in the church.

One last saint reference – there are many more, so this theme can be revised several more times if required or desired – can go to St Peter. Cross Keys was a popular tavern sign (there is a Cross Keys Close in Marylebone), deriving from Christian heraldry as the keys of St Peter (crossed keys appear on the papal arms), or the keys to heaven.

The sign of the crossed keys was once used for one of the Bankside brothels, and there was once a Cross Keys tavern in Wood Street, where the young Dickens was sent on his arrival in London.

The close in Marylebone may have been named from an inn that once stood there; it may also have been named in view of the fact that a carpenter called Philip Keys built the close in the late 18th century.

The nautical connection between Change Alley and Strand

Marine Society
Photo from

My recent absence from these pages has been largely to do with boating matters, so I thought that a nautical theme might be appropriate to mark my return to blogging, and what more nautical than the Marine Society, the world’s first charity dedicated to seafarers

That society was formed by Jonas Hanway, whom we have mentioned before on this blog, but more for his eccentricities than for his philanthropy. The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography calls him a philanthropist and a merchant and in 1756, when Britain was on the brink of war with Europe, Hanway was concerned that his crew would be poached to fight in the King’s navy.

He therefore came up with what would today be called a win-win solution: he recruited boys from poor backgrounds and gave them naval training so they were equipped to fight on the King’s ships. This not only helped him protect his business interests, it also opened up career prospects for those boys who would otherwise be limited in terms of job prospects.

EAS_4102Hanway’s philanthropic activities also embraced the Foundling Hospital, which received a £50 donation from him (the largest single donation he was ever to make to any charity, according to the ODNB); the Stepney Society, designed to apprentice poor boys to marine trades; the Troop Society, which provided clothing and shoes to British soldiers in Germany and North America; and the Magdalen Hospital for Penitent Prostitutes. He also raised funds to relieve victims of foreign fires: one in Montreal in 1765 and another in Bridgetown, Barbados, in 1766.

What does any of this have to do with London street names: First, the King’s Arms Tavern, where the Marine Society was founded, was in Change Alley. That is nothing to do with metamorphosis, but is an abbreviation of ‘Exchange Alley’ – from the Royal Exchange.

EAS_3851Hanway also lived in Red Lion Square, which takes its name from the Red Lyon tavern, “in olden times the most important hostelry in Holborn”, and developed by Nicholas Barbon; and for a time he lodged with his sister in lodgings in Strand – a name, apparently, of Saxon origin.

The Kit-Kat Club and the Cat and Mutton

Blenheim Palace
Engraving of Blenheim Palace

This day in London history: on 24 January 1726 Sir John Vanbrugh was probably born; in any event, he was baptised on this day at his parents’ home in London. A playwright and architect, possibly his best known work as the first is The Provok’d Wife and, as the second, Blenheim Palace.

Vanbrugh was a member of the Kit-Kat Club, a club founded in 1700 by a bookseller called Jacob Tonson. There is a Kitcat Terrace in the East London district of Bow, but it has nothing to do with the club. It rather sedately commemorates the Reverend Henry James Kitcat, rector of St Mary-le-Bow from 1904 to 1921. The name derives from Kitcott, a place name in Devon.

Horace Walpole
Horace Walpole

The Kit-Kat Club was comprised of Whig Patriots dedicated to ensuring that Protestants would continue on the throne after the reign of William III. They were also dedicated to eating, drinking, and hanging out together. Women appeared in the club only as the focus of toasts. Horace Walpole, son of Sir Robert Walpole, who was generally regarded as the first Prime Minister of Great Britain, referred to the club as “a set of wits, in reality the patriots that saved Britain”.

Members of the club also included William Congreve, John Vanbrugh, Matthew Prior, Joseph Addison and Richard Steele. After George I succeeded to the throne in 1714, the original purpose of the club had been served, and it was disbanded by 1720.

The club first met at a tavern in Shire Lane off Fleet Street, and later at the Fountain Tavern on the Strand. In the summer the club repaired to the Upper Flask tavern in Highgate for their meetings. The club took its name from the proprietor (Christopher (Kit) Kat, whose name is also given as Cat, Catt, Katt, and even Catling ) landlord of the Shire Lane tavern off Fleet Street, where the members used to dine. One of his specialities was a sumptuous mutton pie that he called a Kit-Kat. That seemed, to the founding members, as good a name for a club as any.

Alexander Pope
Alexander Pope

Alexander Pope whimsically referred to the club and its name in verse:

Whence deathless Kit-Cat took its name
Few critics can unriddle
Some say from Pastry Cook it came,
And some from Cat and Fiddle

Cat and Fiddle was an old tavern name that many have speculated over. The simplest is that it comes from the nursery thyme (Hey, diddle diddle, the cat and the fiddle, the cow jumped over the moon…), though while the pub name dates back to at early as 1589 the date of the rhyme is not certain.

Other explanations are that it was from the faithful feline (chatte fidèle) companion of an unknown Frenchman, or from the wife of Peter the Great of Russian, Catherine la Fidèle. The problem with that one is that the sign existed over a century before Catherine, but as with these street name stories, fact shouldn’t get in the way of an interesting theory.

Cat and Mutton
Photograph: Ewan Munro

Although, sad to say, there are no streets named Cat and Fiddle, there is a Cat and Mutton Bridge in Hackney. Until December of last year, there was still a Cat and Mutton pub located here, but which came first and what the original name was is not clear. One version of the name is that it was originally Shoulder of Mutton and Cat from the ‘cats’ or coal barges that would have gone under the bridge on the nearby Regents Canal; there is also a Sheep Lane nearby that ties in with the mutton side of things.

Another version is that it was originally the Cattle and Shoulder of Mutton; also from the “many drovers and agricultural workers arriving in London to sell there various beasts in the markets in what now is known as the city”.

The old inn sign, at one time, had two verses on it:

Pray, Puss, do not tare,
Because the mutton is so rare


Pray, Puss do not claw,
Because the mutton is so raw

Sir Francis Bacon, fowl, and skis

Sir Frances Bacon 1617
Sir Frances Bacon

This day in London history: on 7 January 1618, Sir Francis Bacon  was appointed Lord Chancellor, a post he held for just over three years. One of the intriguing aspects of Bacon’s life is the wife he never had: he was an unsuccessful suitor of Lady Elizabeth Hatton. Lady Elizabeth was an interesting character, and is the source of one of the theories behind the name of Bleeding Heart Yard.

The man who was successful in winning Elizabeth’s heart and hand in marriage – possibly to his regret, as she did not take his name and the two of them the couple lived in separate houses for much of their married life – was Edward Coke.

Coke was also a rival of Bacon when it came to public offices: he beat Bacon out in 1594 when he was given the position of Attorney General, and again in 1596 when he became Master of the Rolls. Bacon, who also lost on out the job of Solicitor General in 1595, was made a Queen’s Counsel in 1596.

While Bacon had blotted his copybook somewhat with Queen Elizabeth I by being a favourite of Essex, who lost favour with Elizabeth and was executed, he did start to gain favour. He fared a bit better, however, with Elizabeth’s successor, James I, who gave him the job of Lord Chancellor, but then, following accusations of corruption, Bacon lost his job, was fined, and served a brief sentence in the Tower.

EAS_3851Bacon was born in the Strand (or just Strand, if you prefer), which really was once a strand. The name was first recorded in 1002 as strondway and later as Stronde and la Stranda. It comes from the Old English word ‘strand’, or shore, and referred to the bank of the Thames which, at the time, was much wider.

There is a Bacon’s Lane in Highgate, on the site of the house where Bacon died, a martyr to his scientific curiosity. Way ahead of his time in terms of the principles of refrigeration, he tried stuffing a fowl with snow to see if it would preserve the meat. He caught cold, which developed into pneumonia, from which he died.

Would Sir Francis be pleased to know, one wonders, that a line of skis is named after him?