Hand Court, shop signs and plague pits

Yesterday’s post involved Tokenhouse Yard, mentioned in Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year; another street mentioned in that account was Hand Alley, near to Houndsditch. The alley, like Bunhill Row and Golden Square, stood on the site of one of the many communal pits for victims of the Great Plague in 1665.

In Defoe’s book he says: “The upper end of Hand Alley, in Bishopsgate Street, which was then a green field, and was taken in particularly for Bishopsgate parish, though many of the carts out of the city brought their dead thither also, particularly out of the parish of St All-hallows on the Wall.”

There is still a Hand Court in London, near Chancery Lane. As with many streets, the name could have come from a sign. In the days when the majority of people could not read, it was important for shopkeepers to have unequivocal signs (unlike taverns, where memorable and unusual signs were popular).

The hand was often used in conjunction with other items: a hand with a coffee pot was the sign of a coffee house; and hand in a glove meant a glover; and a hand and shears was the sign for a tailor. There were also occasions where the use of a hand on a sign had a special significance.

According to the 19th century writer John Camden Hotten: “where the sign is painted with a woman’s hand in it, ‘tis a bawdy house”.

Signs with a hand and heart, or hand in hand, were common in the Fleet Street of the 18th century, as it was an area with many marriage brokers. The Hand in Hand sign was then adopted by many taverns and it is possible that the court took its name from one such tavern.

There are not many body parts in London street names, but there are a couple, so more of that in a later post.

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Tokenhouse Yard, the Royal Society, and the Great Plague

Tokenhouse Yard copyYesterday’s post made reference to Tokenhouse Yard and, as promised, here is some more on that City of London street. The derivation of the name is fairly straightforward: there once stood in the yard a house where tokens were issued.

Simple. But, yes, there is more to the story.

The tokens were issued by tradesmen in London and other cities to provide a means of offering currency in smaller amounts. For centuries there was no copper coinage in England: Elizabeth I was, apparently, particularly biased against copper coins. Although copper coins were issued at various times, it was not until 1672, in the reign of Charles II, that copper coins (halfpence and farthings) were declared legal tender and tokens were no longer permitted.

According to Charles II’s proclamation at the time copper coins were finally made legal, anyone who sought to counterfeit any of the new halfpence or farthings were to be considered “utterly inexcusable”. Their contempt of his law and government should cause them to be “chastised with exemplary severity”.

The yard was built by Sir William Petty, an English economist, scientist and philosopher who served under Oliver Cromwell and was able to survive through the reigns of Charles II and James II. He was a charter member of the Royal Society.

Defoe_Journal_of_the_Plague_YearTokenhouse Yard features in Daniel Defoe’s fictionalised account of the Great Plague of London, A Journal of the Plague Year. He writes: “Passing through Tokenhouse Yard, in Lothbury, of a sudden a casement violently opened just over my head, and a woman gave three frightful screeches, and then cried, ‘Oh! death, death, death!’ in a most inimitable tone, which struck me with horror, and a chilliness in my very blood.”

Although Defoe was only three when the plague broke out, but it is assumed that he based much of the work on the journals of his uncle, Henry Foe. Defoe strove so hard to provide a believable account of the plague that his novel is argued to be more non-fiction than fiction and to be more detailed than Samuel Pepys’s contemporary, first-person account.