Coldbath Square: bath-related streets and Roman graffiti on National Bubble Bath Day

It’s a bit late to say ‘Happy New Year’, but welcome to 2019 in the world of London street names. Today, bath-related streets, but first please indulge me as I provide a bit of back story to this blog. The aim of starting a blog was to help me focus my mind on getting all my street name notes and draft text into shape so that I could try and have it all published as a book.

The other day my husband pointed out gently but firmly that while I was a natural-born blogger (subtext: I like to witter), the blog had been going for some years now and the book itself has been in the making for decades rather than years. Wasn’t it time, he asked, that I did what my mother would inelegantly phrase as ‘piss or get off the pot’? I also have an old friend who keeps asking me (his own way of gentle nagging) to let him know when it’s published so he can buy a copy. Yes, you, you know who you are, if you’re reading this.

That means trying to draw a line under all the new street names and bits of information I keep coming across and trying to crystallise what I already have. So, for my most loyal readers, and you also know who you are, there may be a fair amount of repetition as I start to distill my blog ramblings and clean up text of streets that have been covered more than once in this blog.

On that note, let’s look at some bath-related streets as I have seen various references to National Bubble Bath Day.

We can start with the most obvious, in terms of name, which is Coldbath Square. (Pete, if you are reading this, I know you are bound to have been there.) The name comes from a local spring discovered in 1697 by Walter Baynes and converted to a bath, which was said to be a great cure for nervous illnesses.

There was, evidently, no good reason for supposing that, despite the name, the water was any colder than that of any other spring or well, such as the nearby Clerkenwell. In any case, the bath was famous with Londoners and remained open until 1870.

A famous 18th-century strong man, Thomas Topham), had a pub in Coldbath Fields, called the Apple Tree, but the area was, however, far more notorious for its prison. 

The Coldbath Fields Prison was built in 1794 with 280 cells for individual confinement; soon there were nearly a thousand prisoners. It was built on swampy ground and the over-crowding and unhealthy air were responsible for prisoners dying off at an alarming rate. There was a great deal of rioting and the troops were often called in to try and install calm. The prison was closed in 1877 and demolished in 1889.

The poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge mentions the prison in his poem ‘The Devil’s Thoughts’:

As he went through the Cold-Bath Fields he saw
A solitary cell;
And the Devil was pleased, for it gave him a hint
For improving his prisons in hell.

Stew Lane takes its name from the ‘stews’, or brothels, which crowded along the banks of the Thames from the 12th to the 17th century. They tended to be on the south side but some – like this lane – were on the north bank. The stews were licensed and regulated by the government to prevent any debauchery of the respectable wives and daughters of London and, says London historian John Stow, “for the repair of incontinent men to the like women”.

A less colourful explanation for the name is that it was from a bath house for those in need of a hot bath.

Water Lane, to the east, was the setting for an old Roman bath, popular at one time with visitors to London, and described by Charles Dickens in David Copperfield. 

Cheapside, which takes its name from the Anglo-Saxon ‘ceap’, to buy or barter, was once known as West Cheap to distinguish it from Eastcheap, and was one of the busiest thoroughfares in London and the city’s main food market. It was also the location of the main baths of Roman London, built in the first or second century. Two individuals of this time left their mark: a child evidently ran across the tiles of the baths when they were still soft, leaving the mark of footprints.

My very favourite bath reference in all of my collected street names and their stories is   another tile that bears an early example of graffiti: “Austalis has been running off on his own for the past fortnight.”

If anyone reading this knows any more I would be exceedingly grateful for any further light that can be shed on Austalis or what or who he was running to or from.


London’s (watery) culinary streets: Water Lane to Watergate Walk

EAS_3924Before I continue with a few more culinary street names, I must stand corrected, with thanks to MattF, as to Salmon Lane. Once again, I have let myself get carried away with a name derivation that is more fun than accurate.

According to the delightfully named Hector Bolitho and Derek Peel in their book Without the City Walls, the lane is named after Captain Robert Salmon, Master of Trinity House at the time of the Spanish Armada. But we can’t leave it there; that’s what sparked the idea for this book in the first place: not just where names came from but what the story is behind the derivation.

By the way, though I missed Salmon Lane the first time around, Bolitho and Peel were one of my sources in the early days of my research, and I was fortunate enough to acquire a copy recently at not too great an expense. The book is charmingly written, in a tone chatty enough that you can imagine you are walking along with the couple as they stroll the streets of London, listening to them muse about streets and their names. A great deal of well-researched information backs up this musing, which makes the book a good read as well as a useful resource.

But on to Trinity House: this, says the official website, a charity dedicated to safeguarding shipping and seafarers, providing education, support and welfare to the seafaring community with a statutory duty as a General Lighthouse Authority to deliver a reliable, efficient and cost-effective aids to navigation service for the benefit and safety of all mariners. It started with Henry VIII, whose charter led to the formation of what was, in 1513, the Trinity House Corporation. The Corporation was not a military body, but has served, on occasion, a military function and Salmon was involved in one of them.

When Elizabeth I became concerned about the threat of a Spanish invasion she ordered Trinity House to prepare for war, as part of its charter. It was then that Salmon stepped in, telling the queen’s advisor, Lord Burghley, that Trinity House could fit out 30 merchant ships in four days for the use of the Lord High Admiral, Lord Henry Seymour.

As it happened, none of the Trinity House ships were used in battle; however, the flag taken from the Spaniards by Sir Francis Drake was display at Trinity House in Water Lane, but was lost in 1715 when fire destroyed Trinity House.

Once again, taking liberties with the alphabet and its order since water fits in so nicely here, Water Lane takes us neatly back to culinary street names, though for some reason the latter part of the alphabet seems to favour those that are bibendiary rather than culinary.

Water Lane in Stratford, the former location of Trinity House, was the setting for an old Roman bath, popular at one time with visitors to London, and described by Dickens in David Copperfield.

A Water Lane (which no longer exists) in the City was, in medieval times, called Sporiars Lane and took its name from the spur makers of the time. The name was changed in the 15th century with the erection of a water gate in the lane; 20th century development destroyed the lane completely.

There is also a Water Street, WC2, near to the Thames, which is the only survivor of a number of similarly names streets that led to the river before the Embankments made access easier. According to John Strype in his Survey of London, it was “a Place much pestered with Carts and Carrs, for the bringing of Coals and other Goods from the Wharfs by the Water side.

EAS_3928The watergate of Watergate Walk, just off the Strand, was an extension to York House, originally the London home of the Bishops of Norwich, later the palace of the Archbishop of York, and eventually acquired by George Villiers, the first Duke of Buckingham, who had the watergate built. Villiers was a favourite of James I; it was the 2nd Duke of Buckingham who gave his name to Of Alley.

York House was one of several mansions that lined the Strand; those on the south side were the more desirable, having as they did direct access to the Thames (especially if you had your own watergate). The watergate is now part of Embankment Gardens and is an indication of much the river bank has moved.

While for me, as a university student in the US during the 1970s, Watergate had a completely different connotation, the name has since acquired more pleasant associations: you can sit outside Gordon’s Wine Bar in Watergate Walk. The wine bar itself has a rich history: the house in which the bar is situated was home to Samuel Pepys in the 1680s and Rudyard Kipling lived in the building in the 1890s. It was here that he wrote ‘The Light That Failed’.