From Fashion to Threadneedle: London street names and the Great British Sewing Bee 

It seemed only logical that, having written a post on baking-related themes for the final of the Great British Bakeoff last October, the recent final of the Great British Sewing Bee should also prompt me to find street names related to sewing and fashion. (First, I should apologise for the hiatus in posting. I apologise.)

The most obvious is Fashion Street in Spitalfields and I have to go off on a slight tangent here: I was excited, in double-checking something for this post on Wikipedia, to discover that one of my posts is cited as a reference for Flower and Dean Street. But I digress.

Fashion Street is nothing to do with clothes or sewing: it was so named when it was built in the 1650s; the land upon which it stands belonged to the Fasson brothers – Thomas and Lewis, skinner and goldsmith respectively. By 1708 Fasson Street had been corrupted to Fashion Street. They also owned the land upon which stood Flower and Dean Street, where two of Jack the Ripper’s victims lived, and that street was named for bricklayers John Flower and Gowen Dean. 

For a long time Fashion Street – and, indeed, the whole area – was a dirty and dangerous place to live. Jack London lived in Flower and Dean Street in 1902-3 and wrote a book, The People of the Abyss, about the state of life in the Whitechapel and Spitalfields areas of London.

Another obvious sewing street name is Threadneedle Street, home of the Bank of England. The Bank of England. The derivation of the name is not as straightforward as might first appear. Thread and needle certainly make contextual sense, but the street was originally Three Needle Street and was known as such for a long time.

The name is likely to derive from the arms of the The Worshipful Company of Needlemakers, whose coat of arms includes three needles, but the sewing connections don’t end there. The Merchant Taylors, who began life as the Company of Tailors and Linen-Armourers, have had their hall here since 1347, and once owned almshouses in Threadneedle Street for its aged members.

Petticoat Lane belongs to this category, even though it is no longer called that; the lane was covered in a recent post about names that aren’t what they seem, and you can read that here. This name could derive from the fact that secondhand clothes dealers established this as the centre of London’s used clothes district, or from the English form of the French petit court, a “little short lane”.

There is Cloak Lane, which is one of those nice-sounding but icky names, like Maiden Lane, which takes its name from ‘midden’ or dung heap. Cloak in this instance is likely to derive from the Latin cloaca, or sewer. The lane was once called Horseshoe Bridge and led over the Walbrook; there was probably a sewer draining into the brook at that point.

If you prefer a more romantic story, then let’s look to the recently-posted tale of Bleeding Heart Yard, which you can read here. As Saint Nick was carrying off the beautiful gypsy maid who had sold her soul to him, her heart fell in Bleeding Heart Yard, her cloak in Cloak Lane, and one of her shoes in Shoe Lane.

Some might argue that shoes fit in the fashion category, but I am sticking with the clothing and sewing side of fashion and we can look at shoes another time.

Cloth Fair takes name from Bartholomew Fair; this three-day event was held in the Smithfield area from the 12th century to the 19th century. The fair was, early on, essentially a trade fair for the woollen and drapery industries, with Italian and Flemish cloth merchants, and money charged on tolls for goods was a source of income for the priory of St Bartholomew. The nearby Cloth Court and Cloth Street also took their name from the fair.

Bartholomew Fair gradually attracted more and more people, and soon the speciality of cloth was virtually overlooked. Ben Jonson, who immortalised it in the comic play Bartholomew Fair, first staged on 31 October 1614.

Clothier Street in Houndsditch, which was known previously as Crab Court and Carter Street, has a connection to the clothing industry that goes back to Elizabethan times when it was famous as a gathering area for “sellers of old apparel”. An official Clothes Exchange was established there in 1875 and the current name was assigned in 1906.

There isn’t a City of London worshipful company of clothiers, but there is Worshipful Company of Clothiers in Worcester.

In 2008 Prince Charles visited the city of Worcester and paid £453.15 to the Company, thus settling a Royal debt dating back to 1651. Prior to the Battle of Worcester that year, Charles II commissioned the Company to make uniforms for his troops, promising to pay after winning the battle. However, Cromwell won and Charles II fled to Europe, leaving a debt of £453.3s which he did not settle after he acceded to the throne. That is what you call serious welshing on a deal. (And before any Welsh readers complain about me feeding into negative stereotypes, don’t forget I supported Wales in the Six Nations.)

Haberdasher Street in Shoreditch takes its name from a bequest by Robert Aske, silk merchant and member of the Haberdashers’ Company. He left land and money to the Company; it was used to establish a school in 1690. The Haberdashers’ Company maintains a strong tradition of supporting schools.

Silk merchant takes us onto Silk Street, which was built either in 1799 or 1879 and takes its name from silk weaving in 17th-century London, which was carried on largely by French refugees who settled in the Spitalfields area. By the 19th century they had been joined by their English counterparts from the north, who set up silk factories. Many of them lived in this street, which was finally named in recognition of that fact. (Since there’s always one in every crowd, the theory has also been put forward that the name may have come from a builder.)

London’s livery companies and street names

Throgmorton pillarYesterday’s post touched on the Drapers Company, so I think it’s time to start taking a look at the City of London livery companies, inextricably linked into London’s history and to many of its famous streets (or unusual street names). They are also linked to a common expression – ‘at sixes and sevens’ – and a curious pub name, both of which are explained later in this post.

The Drapers Company has a hall at one end of Throgmorton Avenue; at the other end is the hall of the Carpenters Company. (To give them their proper names, they are the Worshipful Company of Drapers (number 12 in order of precedence, and we’ll get to that shortly) and the Worshipful Company of Carpenters (number 26).

Livery companies can be seen as early trade associations, incorporated under Royal Charter, with some of them dating back to medieval times. In 1515 an order of precedence was set, with the top 12 still referred to as the Twelve Great Livery Companies. Between 1746 and 1926 no new companies were created; those post-1926 are considered the modern livery companies.

The livery companies were powerful bodies in their time, regulating their respective trades and the practitioners of that trade. Interestingly, the original companies would seem to indicate the importance of textiles in medieval times: of the great twelve companies (see table below), five are textile related in some way; number 13 in order of precedence is the Worshipful Company of Dyers, and there is also a Worshipful Company of Weavers. The twelve great companies are:

  1. Worshipful Company of Mercers
  2. Worshipful Company of Grocers
  3. Worshipful Company of Drapers
  4. Worshipful Company of Fishmongers
  5. Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths
  6. Worshipful Company of Skinners/Merchant Taylors
  7. Worshipful Company of Merchant Taylors/Skinners
  8. Worshipful Company of Haberdashers
  9. Worshipful Company of Salters
  10. Worshipful Company of Ironmongers
  11. Worshipful Company of Vintners
  12. Worshipful Company of Clothworkers

The Skinner and Taylors have no fixed order of precedence; instead they swap annually between sixth and seventh. This comes about because of a long-standing dispute about which was granted a charter first; both received charters in 1327 but there is with no proof as to which was earlier. The dispute, apparently, eventually reached bloodshed and was taken to the Lord Mayor of London. He decreed that the respective Masters should be entertained to dinner by each other’s company annually and that each company should alternate the ranks of sixth and seventh from year to year.

This is often said to have originated the expression ‘at sixes and sevens’, (though some sources say it is more likely to have come from dicing).

So that’s the potted history of livery companies; now here are some connections, however tenuous, between the livery companies and some of the street names that have adorned this blog.

Garlick Hill cropGarlick Hill, where the Worshipful Company of Leathersellers’ Company is based. The company is ranked fifteenth in the order of precedence and was founded by royal charter in 1444 with authority to control the sale of leather within the City.

Mincing Lane cropMincing Lane, where the Worshipful Company of Cordwainers make their home in the Clothworkers’ Hall (their own hall was destroyed in the Blitz). The company, which was granted a Royal Charter in 1439, is one of the oldest, dating back to at least 1272. Cordwainers make “fine soft leather shoes and other luxury footwear articles”. The name comes from the soft leather, or cordwain, that its members used; this originated from Cordoba in Spain. And, yes, Jimmy Choo is a member of the Cordwainers.

EAS_3880Elephant and Castle, where theories about its name include the emblem of the Worshipful Company of Cutlers (number 18 on the list). The Cutlers are now based in Warwick Street but their original hall (destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666) was in what is now Cloak Lane.

EAS_4136St Mary Axe, where the the John Stow Memorial Service is held in the church of St Andrew Undershaft. Stow was a member of the Worshipful Company of Merchant Taylors and that august body organizes the biannual service, which includes the ceremonial changing of the quill.

Threadneedle Street, which takes its name from the Worshipful Company of Needlemakers, and where the Merchant Taylors once had their hall.

The Swan with Two Necks (ok, cheating; it’s a pub name, rather than a street name, but so what? it’s a great name), which takes its name from the Worshipful Company of Vintners and the practice of swan upping. The Vintners, along with the Dyers and the ruling monarch, are the only people or bodies allowed to own swans on the Thames.

Pudding LanePudding Lane, home to the first great hall of the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries (not a typo, it is the Society and not the Company). The hall, like so many other halls and London landmarks, was destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666 and was later rebuilt in Blackfriars Lane. The Apothecaries also have a connection with the British Museum and the Chelsea Physic Garden, which has an entrance in Swan Walk and therefore a connection with the famous Doggett Coat and Badge race, which is organized by the Worshipful Company of Fishmongers.

Petticoat Lane viewWeaver Street and Petticoat Lane, with connections to The Worshipful Company of Weavers, which, while it is number 42 in precedence, received its charter in 1155, making it the oldest recorded City Livery Company.

And last, at least for now, Ironmonger Lane, with connections to the Worshipful Company of Ironmongers (which has its hall in Aldersgate StreetAldersgate Street) and The Worshipful Company of Mercers, which has its hall in the lane. The first Mercers’ Hall was off Cheapside but was – you guessed it – destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666.

More on livery companies in the next (or at least a future) post.

Threadneedle Street and a tenuous connection with Cromwell

30 January marks two executions in history: one genuine and one ceremonial. On 30 January 1649 Charles I was beheaded, following the Rump Parliament declaring him guilty of treason. On 30 January 1661 the remains of Oliver Cromwell, the man behind the the Rump Parliament and the king’s execution, were exhumed from Westminster Abbey and ceremonially executed.

There’s already a post on streets with Cromwell connections, but I’m working to an ongoing challenge to find ever-more tenuous connections between historical figures or events and London streets, and there’s a Cromwell association I missed before. It is tenuous, so bear with me.

The City Livery Companies of London play an important role in the city’s history and street names, and one of them, the The Worshipful Company of Needlemakers, was granted livery in 1656 by Oliver Cromwell. The coat of arms of the Company includes three needles, which probably give its name to Threadneedle Street – originally known as ‘three needle’ street, according to John Stow.

The Bank of England is known as the Old Lady of Threadneedle Street, but the nickname comes not from the institution’s age but from the sad story of a bereaved sister. Another tidbit of information about the street is that it is where Sir Thomas Hariot, who introduced the potato to England, died.

The original Old Lady of Threadneedle Street

Bank of EnglandOn 26 February, following various financial crises, the UK government, passed The Bank Restriction Act, preventing paper money holders from demanding specie in exchange and thus making the Bank of England, effectively, insolvent. On the same day, the first one pound note was issued to ease the growing need for currency; previously notes had been only larger denominations.

The Bank of England, founded by William Paterson, a 17th-century Scottish merchant, is located on Threadneedle Street and the derivation of that name is not as straightforward as might first appear. Thread and needle certainly make contextual sense, but – it’s a London street name, after all – it’s not that simple.

EAS_4091“Then have you one other street called three needle street,” according to our favourite source for London history and street names, John Stow. This was, for a long time, the name by which the street was known. The needles are probably from the arms of the Needle Makers Company; the Merchant Taylors also had their hall here from the 14th century and signs with needles would indicate proximity to the hall.

The Merchant Taylors Company was granted its first charter in 1327, and was sixth – or seventh, depending an the year – in the priority list of the City livery companies. The reason for the shifting priority was due to the feud between that company and the Skinners. These two were no exception to the fighting between guilds in the Middle Ages; when it reached the stage of bloodshed the companies took their grievances to the Mayor.

The Mayor decreed that the respective Masters should be entertained to dinner by each other’s company annually and that each company should alternate the ranks of sixth and seventh from year to year. This is often said to have originated the expression ‘at sixes and sevens’, (though it is more likely to have come from dicing).

But back to the Bank of England, which is familiarly known as the ‘Old Lady of Threadneedle Street’. The nickname originated with a sad young 19th-century woman whose brother was a bank clerk. The lad was executed for trying to forge cheques and, unfortunately, no one thought to let his sister, Sarah, know. When she arrived at the bank enquiring after him the news shocked her so much that she lost her mind.

Refusing to accept her brother’s ignominious death Sarah continued to visit the bank every day for over twenty-five years asking for him. The bank staff became used to her and would tactfully give her reasons every day for his absence; Sarah eventually became known as the Old Lady of Threadneedle Street.

Sir Thomas Hariot, who introduced the potato to England, died in Threadneedle Street.

An Elizabethan Renaissance man and the Old Lady of Threadneedle Street

This day in London history: on 3 December 1586, Sir Thomas Hariot (also spelled Harriot or Herriot) introduced the potato to England. Hariot, who was primarily a mathematician and astronomer, has been described as a true Renaissance man: an adventurer, anthropologist, astronomer, author, cartographer, ethnographer, explorer, geographer, historian, linguist, mathematician, naturalist, navigator, oceanographer, philosopher, planner, scientist, surveyor, versifier and teacher.

Thomas HariotHariot was hired as a mathematics tutor for Sir Walter Raleigh; he also served as an accountant, navigational expert, ship designer, and – when Raleigh’s men brought two native Americans back from their homeland, was an ethnographer and linguist, devising a phonetic alphabet for their language.

In 1621, Hariot died of skin cancer; at the time of his death he was living with a friend in Threadneedle Street. That street, which takes its name from the arms of the Needle Makers Company, is perhaps best known as the location of the Bank of England, familiarly known as the ‘Old Lady of Threadneedle Street’.

EAS_4091The nickname originated with a sad young 19th-century woman whose brother was a bank clerk. The lad was executed for trying to forge cheques and, unfortunately, no one thought to let his sister, Sarah, know. When she arrived at the bank enquiring after him the news shocked her so much that she lost her mind. Refusing to accept her brother’s ignominious death she continued to visit the bank every day for over twenty-five years asking for him.

The bank staff became used to her and would tactfully give her reasons every day for his absence; Sarah eventually became known as the Old Lady of Threadneedle Street.