London’s number streets: One Tree Hill to Three Mill Lane

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Once known as Three Needle Street

Hello, gentle reader(s), I’m back! Apologies for the long gap in posts, and thank you for bearing with me.

I was looking at a recent post, the one on trees, and a couple of things occurred to me. First, there are a couple of gaps, about which I have spoken to myself severely. Second, it occurred to me that there are a few numbers there so – yes, you guessed it! – I rushed to see what ‘number’ streets I have. There are quite a few, but I have information on only a few of them, and photos of even fewer, but here’s what I’ve been able to find out. (Incidentally, in the W10 area there are streets from First to Sixth Avenue but I will ignore them.)

In numerical order, we start with the already-covered One Tree Hill, which was once called Five Tree Hill. The one tree was Honor Oak, which took its name from the fact that it marked a boundary of the ‘Honor of Gloucester’ – land belonging to the 12th-century earls of Gloucester.

We then jump to three, of which there are many, including Three Colts Lane. The ‘three’ in streets names generally means a tavern sign, common in part because it occurs often in heraldry, and in part because it is traditionally a lucky number.

In the 19th century, this lane, which takes its name from an inn sign, was part of the then crime-ridden and filthy Bethnal Green area. It is mentioned in Hector Gavin’s 19th-century Sanitary Ramblings: Being Sketches and Illustrations of Bethnal Green in very unfavourable terms: “that part of Three Colts Lane which is without a sewer is very dirty,” he noted with distaste, “and the gutters full of dirt and fluid filth”.

(There is also a Three Colt Street, off of which leads a small passage called Five Bell Alley.)

Three Cranes Lane no longer exists, but that took its name from a 16th-century inn, the sign of which depicted birds rather than, as was more common, the cranes that were used to hoist casks of wine. The name has been reinstated as part of the City of London’s ‘Riverside Walk Enhancement Strategy’, and can be found close to Three Barrels Walk and Three Quays Walk. The name of Three Quays dates back to the 17th century, when exotic imports from the West Indies were unloaded at three separate quays.

Three Kings Yard in Mayfair takes its name from a tavern that stood at the entrance of the yard until 1879. There was also once a Three Kings Court; the tavern for which that was named was destroyed in the Great Fire. The kings on this inn sign usually depicted the three Magi – Balthazar, Caspar, and Melchior.

Three Tuns Court, demolished in the 19th century, came from a short-lived tavern, recorded in 1845 and demolished soon after. The tun, a large cask for holding two hundred and fifty-two gallons of wine, was a natural choice for a tavern sign. Three of them come into the picture because they appeared on the arms of the Vintners’ Company and of the Brewers’ Company.

There was once also a court called Three Nuns Court, named after a 14th-century brewery called the ‘Thre Nones’, presumed to be a corruption of Three Tuns. Three Nun Court, which may or may not be the same one, can be found just off Aldermanbury.

Three Cups Yard also takes its name from a tavern, which was a popular name; there were quite a few of them in London over the years.

Taking in both pubs and trees (and filling one of those gaps in the tree post): Three Oak Lane, like One Tree Hill, is a logical street names: three oaks once stood here, and there was a Three Oaks inn recorded in 1761.

Three Mill Lane also makes sense: this lane in Stratford takes its name from the fact that its proximity to the River Lea made it a good place for water mills. There were three of them here dating back to the early 14th century. The river itself, which flows from the Chilterns and joins the Thames, was once used to define the border between the Danes and the English. (Also in Stratford is Four Dials.)

Before we leave the number three, we should mention Threadneedle Street, which was once called Three Needle Street, from the arms of the Needle Makers Company.

More number streets in a future post.

London’s lost streets (part 3): Hercules, Ezekiel, and pickles

Our little romp through the extinct back streets of London draws to a close today, with a few more names inspired largely by inns and taverns. We start with Hercules Pillars Alley, which takes its name from a tavern that was there in 1668.

The pillars in question are the two rocks in the Straits of Gibraltar – the Rock of Gibraltar and Mount Hacho – that form the entrance to the Mediterranean. The legend is that they were once one rock and Hercules tore them apart so he could get past.

The Straits of Gibraltar were once considered virtually the end of the earth so the sign was particularly popular with taverns on the outskirts of a town. (Another name popular for such taverns was World’s End, and one gave its name to World’s End Passage in Chelsea.)

There was once a Hercules Pillars tavern in Piccadilly that was frequently visited by the Marquis of Granby (who gave his own name to many a pub), and it is mentioned in Tom Jones as the inn where Squire Western stays.

Hole in the Wall Passage took its name from another relatively common tavern name, which could have referred to an early ‘speakeasy’, an illegal drinking establishment.

Or it could have been reminiscent of debtors’ prisons: there were holes in the walls through which inmates were handed food, drink, money, and other tokens of charity. Other holes in walls were in lepers’ dens through which priests could bless the sufferers.

Alternatively, the name could hark back to the prophet Ezekiel who visited Jerusalem in spirit. When bade to dig at the hole in the wall he spied “every form of creeping things, and abominable beasts” – perhaps a comment on the patrons of the tavern in question?

Pickled Egg Walk, which was once a “place of low amusements” – took its name from the Pickled Egg tavern, not a particularly common name. The proprietor, who was not a Londoner, had a particularly delectable recipe for pickled eggs.

The story goes that Charles II (though some versions say it was his father, Charles I) once stopped there, sampled that delicacy for the first time, and enjoyed it. Royal pleasure was something that any canny landlord would capitalize on and this one was no exception, promptly naming the inn for his speciality.

Pickle Herring Street may not have taken its name not from a tavern; it may have been from the fact that the street was on the site of one of the Thames River’s old wharves – where cargoes of pickled herrings were shipped. The area was once known as ‘London’s larder’, from its use as the primary storage area for butter, cheese and, later, canned meat.

The name may also have come from the fact that Sir John Falstofe – who gave his name to Shakespeare’s Falstaff – lived on this spot in 1447. Falstofe was once a fish merchant, so it could have been his pickled herrings that gave the street its name.

As always, there are other possible explanations: though herrings were pickled in England as far back as the 14th century, it was more of a Dutch speciality. There is a record, in 1584, of a ‘Peter Van Duraunte alias Pickell Heringe’ being buried in Bermondsey.

Van Duraunte was actually a brewer, so the nickname is not obvious, unless he had an inn called the Pickled Herring; such an inn may have given rise to the street name. So it could have been from a tavern after all.

Three Cranes Lane took its name from a 16th-century inn, the sign of which depicted the bird type of crane. Many other inns and taverns with ‘crane’ in the name more commonly referred to the cranes that were used to hoist casks of wine.

However, as the helpful John Stow tells us, the lane was “so called not only of a sign of three cranes at a tavern door, but rather of three strong cranes of timber placed on the Vintry wharf by the Thames side, to crane up wines there”.

The tavern was a famous one: Ben Jonson and his fellow roisterers were patrons of the inn, and it was from here (“a little alehouse on the Bankside over against the Three Cranes”) that Pepys watched some of the conflagration of the Great Fire of 1666.

He had gone there some years earlier for a family celebration, but did not particularly enjoy the experience. In Pepys’s own words:

“…in the afternoon by coach by invitacon to my uncle Fenner’s, where I found his new wife, a pitiful, old, ugly, illbred woman in a hatt, a midwife. Here were many of his, and as many of her relations, sorry, mean people; and after choosing our gloves, we all went over to the Three Crane Tavern, and though the best room in the house, in such a narrow dogg-hole we were crammed, and I believe we were near forty, that it made me loathe my company and victuals; and a sorry poor dinner it was too.

Sadly, all letter but one of the English alphabet are represented in London street names; until the 1950s all 26 could be found in an index due to East London’s XX Place. It was situated close to Stayners Road and a brewery belonging at one time to the Stayner family.

The inspiration for the name was probably an inn sign depicting a barrel with XX and the initials ISJS and 1823 (from the brewer and date) inscribed on it.