Tothill Street: burial grounds and ping pong

From Marylebone to Westminster; I read an article today about a Tothill-fields bridewell prisoner dying of starvation in 1817. (Bridewell: a place of correction, from one that was originally near St Bride’s church in Fleet Street.) So let’s head off to Tothill Street to discover the origin of the name.

Tothill Street takes its name from Tothill Fields near Westminster Abbey and there are a number of theories as to the origin of the name itself. The most likely is that, as the highest point in Westminster, it was a ‘toot’ or beacon hill. Another theory is that it was from the Druid divinity Teut.

Tothill Fields was a once burial ground; following the Battle of Worcester – the final battle of the English Civil War – many of Charles II’s Scottish allies were either buried here or (for those remaining alive), “driven like a herd of swine through Westminster to Tuthill Fields” where they were sold to merchants and sent to the island colony of Barbados.

It later, during the Great Plague of 1665-1666, became a communal burial ground and Samuel Pepys noted in his diary with some dismay that, “I was much troubled this day to hear at Westminster how the officers do bury the dead in the open Tuttle Fields, pretending want of room elsewhere”.

An indication of how many people were buried in pits, and not just during the Plague years, was highlighted during the Crossrail excavations, which unearthed thousands of skeletons in the Bedlam burial ground near Liverpool Street station.

On a lighter note, the first table tennis tournament was held on 14 December 1901 at the The Royal Aquarium and Winter Garden in Tothill Street.

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Ping-pong, burial grounds, and Daniel Defoe

Royal AquariumThis day in London history: on 14 December 1901 (according to various sources), the first table tennis tournament was held at the The Royal Aquarium and Winter Garden, a place of amusement in Westminster. The Aquarium, which opened in 1876 and was demolished in 1903, was on Tothill Street, near Westminster Abbey. (The term ping-pong was trademarked in 1901 by British manufacturer J Jaques & Son Ltd.)

The street name comes from Tothill Fields, and there are a number of theories as to the origin of the name Tothill. The most likely is that, as the highest point in Westminster, it was a ‘toot’ or beacon hill. Another theory is that it was from the Druid divinity Teut.

Tothill Fields was a once burial ground; following the Battle of Worcester – the final battle of the English Civil War – many of Charles II’s Scottish allies were either buried here or (for those remaining alive), “driven like a herd of swine through Westminster to Tuthill Fields” where they were sold to merchants and sent to the island colony of Barbados.

It later, during the Great Plague of 1665-1666, became a communal burial ground and Samuel Pepys noted in his diary with some dismay that, “I was much troubled this day to hear at Westminster how the officers do bury the dead in the open Tuttle Fields, pretending want of room elsewhere”.

Bunhill Fields
Bunhill Fields with the Defoe obelisk in the background. Photograph: Fin Fahey

Another ‘fields’ that was supposed to be, but never was, used as a plague burial pit was Bunhill Fields. It was here that, following his death as a pauper, Daniel Defoe was buried without ceremony and with his name spelled wrong.

Also on this day in 1952, John Christie strangled his wife Ethel in their home at 10 Rillington Place. The street, perhaps named after the village in Yorkshire, was renamed after local residents became unhappy with the associations of the name, as well as the number of people visiting the site. The new name, Bartle Road, may have come from a local resident.

The great storm and Defoe’s sad end

This day in London’s history: on 25 November the Great Storm of 1703 reached its peak of intensity. The lead roofing was blown off Westminster Abbey and Queen Anne had to shelter in a cellar at St. James’s Palace to avoid collapsing chimneys and part of the roof. On the Thames, around 700 ships were heaped together in the Pool of London, the section downstream from London Bridge.

Defoe The Storm

The storm, the worst in British history, ripped through the country, killing people and livestock and wreaking havoc. Daniel Defoe, who travelled the country afterwards assessing the damage and wrote what is called the first substantial work of modern journalism, called it “The Greatest, the Longest in Duration, the widest in Extent, of all the Tempests and Storms that History gives any Account of since the Beginning of Time”.

Defoe reported that men and animals were lifted off their feet and carried for yards through the air and that lead roofs were ripped from one hundred churches.

Although Defoe went on (in 1719) to write one of the most famous English language novels – Robinson Crusoe – he died penniless and intestate in lodgings in Ropemaker Street, and was buried without ceremony in Bunhill Fields. The final insult was that the local bureaucracy couldn’t even get his name right: he was registered in death as ‘Mr Dubowe, Cripplegate”.