From Air and Wood to Bell and Gun: London’s noun street names

Flintlock CloseBut first, a small diversion. It was Groundhog Day on Tuesday (February 2nd) so I should point out that, regarding the hog bit, there is a pig-related street names post on this blog and you can read it here.

As far as the ground bit goes, there has been a bit of a debate about Golden Square and whether it was really a plague pit. Some sources say it was, others are adamant that it was not.

Still, it was a good excuse for me to start looking into plague pits, and I found a great website with a list of confirmed and possible plague pit sites. So that could be a post theme for the not too distant future.

Air Street cropIn the meantime, before I lose the thread of parts of speech street names, why not look at a few noun street names? (We have done quite a few of them before, in other categories, such as clothing and culinary, but we won’t let that slow us down.)

And we can start with Air Street, just off Regent Street. This street was in existence by 1659, when it would have been at the very western end of the city; however, its name is nothing to do with air or open space. It was also called Ayr Street and may have been named for Thomas Ayres, a local builder and brewer. Apparently it is “innocent of literary or historic associations”.

EAS_3953Bell Yard off Fleet Street takes its name from an inn that no longer stands, and where William Shakespeare was a frequent patron. The only surviving letter to him was penned here in 1598 by Richard Quyney (who wrote to his “loving friend and countryman’). Quyney’s son Thomas married Shakespeare’s younger daughter. Charles Dickens had an office in the yard in 1831.

Frying Pan Alley cropFrying Pan Alley takes its name from a shop sign, common with ironmongers and braziers, and also used for taverns. The Clerkenwell historian WJ Pinks said of an earlier alley with this name that it was only two and a half feet wide. Lest the reader should be in any doubt as to how narrow that was, he goes on to inform us that there was not enough “room in it to get a full sized coffin out without turning it on edge”.

Gravel LaneNames like Dunghill Lane and Filth Alley help conjure up a pretty good image of what roads in London were like some time ago and puts the modern problem of ‘doggie doo’ into context. Gravel Lane, along with its neighbour Stoney Lane, was probably so named because of the fact that it had, unusually, a surface other than mud. Up until the 17th century, this was relatively rare – certainly rare enough for names like Gravel Lane and Paved Alley.

Gun StGun Street takes its name from the nearby artillery grounds. The artist Mark Gertler (see Elder Street) was born here in 1891. There was once a Gun Square, and there is a Gunmakers Lane, which takes its name from the London Small Arms Factory, which was on adjoining land.

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Wood Street’s name dates back to the 12th century, supposedly from the fact that all the houses there were built of wood (in spite of Richard I’s farsighted edict that all houses should be built of stone to avoid the risk of fire). It could also be that, as with so many other streets in the Cheapside area, it was given the name wood because wood was sold there. (There was a Roman fort here in the first and second centuries; the north-south road in it coincides with the top end of Wood Street, which could then arguably be the oldest street in the city.)

Oh, yes, Flintlock Close. Sorry, but I haven’t been able to find out anything about this other than that it has a great name and fits in with Gun Street.

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London’s tree streets: from One Tree Hill to Nine Elms Lane

greenwich-onetreehillToday let’s go back to Greenwich and the blog that gave us Pigsty Alley and inspired our recent theme of London’s grubby streets. Paxview’s ‘A day in Greenwich’ also discusses One Tree Hill, which gave me the idea of London’s tree-related streets, of which there are many. Starting, naturally, with One Tree Hill – and thank you to @JR_justJR for the photograph, which he took half way between One Tree and the Royal Observatory.

The hill, which is the site of an oak tree, was once called Five Tree Hill; what happened to the other four is uncertain. 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.

The tree itself, however, is supposed to date far earlier than that, and there are several stories attributed to it. Queen Boudicca (was supposed to have been defeated here in battle in the year 61. Queen Elizabeth dined under it on the last May Day (for more on May Day celebrations, see )of her life, and Dick Turpin used it as a lookout.

In the late 19th century the oak was destroyed by lightning and another planted close by. The tree was used for the prayers involved in the local beating of the bounds, as with Gospel Oak, and the last of the ceremonies took place there in 1899.

George Cruikshank, cartoonist and satirist, mentions the area in his Comic Almanack):

Then won’t I have a precious lark
Down One Tree Hill in Greenwich Park

(We’ve already covered Gospel Oak which is an area rather than a street, but never mind. There would, at one time, have been an oak tree on or near the boundary between two parishes, in this case, the parishes of Hampstead and St Pancras. The tree, sadly, no longer exists, having last been recorded on an 1801 map. The name itself comes from an old custom of ‘beating the bounds’ and part of this custom was a gospel reading under a large tree.)

Since mighty oaks from little acorns grow, let’s look at Acorn Lane (which no longer exists, alas, but there are Acorn Court, Acorn Parade and Acorn Walk). This name come from an inn sign: the acorn was used in signs partly because it was an attractive design; there is also the theory that it was an indication of the landlord’s intention to grow his business to impressive proportions, however small the beginnings.

The oak itself has long been a common tavern sign as well, Royal Oak being particularly popular. The heart of the oak was used in shipbuilding, and the expression ‘heart of oak’ is used for someone of exceptional bravery. In the language of plants, bravery and hospitality are said to be the qualities of the oak tree; this was particularly true for King Charles II, as he hid in the Royal Oak at Boscobel in Shropshire after losing losing the Battle of Worcester in 1651. Boscobel House is now part of English Heritage and is open to visitors who can see a descendant of The Royal Oak.

Another oak tree that has a London street connection is Allgood Street. In the words of Mae West, “goodness had nothing to do with it” and this street, named for a local antiquarian, HGC Allgood, was previously called Henrietta Street and had somewhat scandalous associations. The Henrietta refers to Henrietta Wentworth, mistress of the married Duke of Monmouth, natural son of Charles II.

Henrietta used her jewels and wealth to help fund Monmouth’s unsuccessful attempts to capture the throne from James II. Monmouth was beheaded in July 1685 and Henrietta died the following year, supposedly from a broken heart. Her mother had an elaborate monument built to Henrietta’s memory in the church at Toddington, the Wentworth’s estate in Bedfordshire. However, a more personal and touching memorial existed in the form of her name, carved by Monmouth, on an oak tree in the Toddington estate. The tree became known locally as the Monmouth Oak.

From acorns to cherries, because of Mary Poppins, who was the magical nanny to the Banks family who lived at Number Seventeen Cherry Tree Lane in London. While there is no real Cherry Tree Lane in central London, there is one in Romford in Essex. In the capital itself, there are at least one each of a Cherry Tree Close, a Cherry Tree Drive, a Cherry Tree Road, and a Cherry Tree Way.

Elder Street, near Shoreditch High Street, is named for the flowering plant Sambucus nigra, otherwise known as an elder tree. It is part of an estate developed by the Tillard family, Huguenots who acquired land and developed the estate in the 1720s.

Gertler plaque
Photo from waymarking.com

The elder tree is surrounded by a multitude of beliefs and superstitions – for instance, it was thought at one time to be the tree from which Judas Escariot hanged himself, and also to be the wood from which the Cross of Calvary was made, giving rise to its reputation as a symbol of death and sorrow. (Still, the elderflower and the elderberry make great country wines, and I speak from experience of both making and drinking them.)

The painter Mark Gertler, who served as the basis for DH Lawrence’s character Loerke in Women in Love lived in Elder Street from 1911 to 1915.

And on from One Tree Hill to Seven Sisters Road in north London. This takes its name from a tavern called, the Seven Sisters, which in turn commemorated the fact that, in front of it, stood a circle of elm trees with a walnut tree in the centre. The trees, removed in the 1840s, were supposed to have dated back to around the 14th century, planted on the spot where a martyr had been burned.

The seven sisters is a term that refers to the Pleiades, and to the cliffs on England’s Sussex coast, from Cuckmere Haven to Beachy Head, and to a loose association of seven liberal arts colleges in the Northeastern United States that are historically women’s colleges. It also refers to a set of cannons used in the Battle of Flodden, a 16th-century conflict between the Kingdom of England and the Kingdom of Scotland.

Singer Dame Shirley Bassey was a resident of Seven Sisters Road during the 1950s before she became famous and Rob Fleming, the main character in Nick Hornby’s book High Fidelity, lives in Seven Sisters Road. (The book was(made into a movie with the wonderful John Cusack, but it is set in Chicago rather than London.)

Counting up to nine and Nine Elms Lane, which is now more of a major road than a lane, running on the south bank of the Thames and past the New Covent Garden market. It was, however (yay! it makes sense) once a country lane which did run past nine elm trees.

There was once a Nine Elms train station which opened in 1838. Nine – appropriately enough – days after it opened it was over-run by more than 5,000 racing fans who rushed there for the eight special trains going near Epsom for the Derby Day. The station was closed to the hoi polloi ten years later; it was, however, still used by Queen Victoria and other worthies such as Giuseppe Garibaldi, who visited England only once, in 1864. When he arrived by special train at Nine Elms station, there was such a huge reception for him that his journey by carriage to Piccadilly (a little over two miles) took six hours.

After being damaged during the World War II, Nine Elms station was finally closed in the 1960s.

EAS_4053Wood Street could be considered cheating, but wood is from trees. This name dates back to the 12th century, supposedly from the fact that all the houses there were built of wood. Some sources have it that, as one of the Cheapside streets, it was given the name because timber and firewood were sold there.

Others, including John Stow, also point to the fact that there was a Thomas Wood, Sheriff of London, who lived in the street and built a row of houses there (“the beautiful row of houses over against Wood street end”), but as he was there in 1491 the name would seem to be more happenstance than commemoration.

There is another tree connection: Wordsworth immortalized the street in his poem ‘The Reverie of Poor Susan’. Susan, a homesick country girl, passes a plane tree at the end of Wood Street, and the song of a thrush emanating from the tree reminds her of her rural life:

At the corner of Wood Street when daylight appears
Hangs a thrush that sings loud, it has sung for three years
Poor Susan has passed by the spot, and has heard
In the silence of the morning, the song of the bird.

Tyburn tree wikicommons
Photo: Wikimedia Commons

And to end on a grisly note, we shouldn’t really overlook one of London’s most infamous trees: Tyburn Tree, the site for centuries of London’s public hangings. Prisoners were originally hanged from trees near the Tyburn River, and in the 16th century an ingenious gallows that could handle several prisoners at once was erected on the spot still marked by a plaque.

Yes, there are lots of yew, acacia and other tree names in London but they are, in the main, just named because the area has been given a lot of horticultural names.

Wooden houses, thrushes, and prisons

Richard I
Richard I during his coronation

On 25 March 1199 Richard I, also known as Richard the Lionheart, was wounded by a crossbow bolt; this led to his death on April 6. He reigned as king of England for ten years, but spent only six months in the country and, when he was raising funds for his crusade, he is reputed to have said, “I would have sold London if I could find a buyer.”

However, Richard did make contributions to London street names, one of which was Snow Hill. He also, with great foresight, given the fires that raged through London in later centuries, declared that houses in the city should be built of stone and not wood, to lessen the risk of fire.

EAS_4053All of which brings us to Wood Street, with a name that dates back to the 12th century, supposedly from the fact that all the houses there were built of wood (in spite of Richard’s farsighted edict). Some sources have it that, as one of the Cheapside streets, it was given the name because timber and firewood were sold there.

Some people, including John Stow, also point to the fact that there was a Thomas Wood, Sheriff of London, who lived in the street and built a row of houses there (“the beautiful row of houses over against Wood street end”), but as he was there in 1491 the name would seem to be more happenstance than commemoration.

Wordsworth immortalized the street in his poem ‘The Reverie of Poor Susan’. Susan, a homesick country girl, passes a plane tree at the end of Wood Street, and the song of a thrush emanating from the tree reminds her of her rural life:

At the corner of Wood Street when daylight appears
Hangs a thrush that sings loud, it has sung for three years
Poor Susan has passed by the spot, and has heard
In the silence of the morning, the song of the bird.

Pepys and Jonson frequented a tavern (the Mitre) in Wood Street and the young Charles Dickens stayed at the Cross Keys inn there upon his arrival in London.

The street was was also the location of the Wood Street compter; this compter was mainly a debtors’ prison, but also served to take in overflow from Newgate, and had three sections – where you were depended on whether you were rich, poor, or comfortably well off. Prisoners were transferred here in the 16th century from the Bread Street compter and then, in the 18th century, the occupants of Wood Street compter were, in turn, transferred to the Giltspur Street compter.

There was once a cross, Cheapside Cross (one of the Eleanor crosses, but more of that another time) , which stood at the corner of Wood Street,; all royal proclamations used to be read from here, even long after the cross was removed.

Dickens, prisons, and bowler hats

This day in London history: on 17 December 1843, A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens was published and on 17 December 1849, the first bowler hat was sold.EAS_4053(Update: this blog is about Dickens; for more on the bowler hat, read this post.)

Charles Dickens has many associations with London, starting with Wood Street: the young Dickens stayed at Cross Keys inn there upon his arrival in London. Samuel Pepys and Ben Jonson frequented a tavern – the Mitre – in Wood Street.

Wood Street’s name dates back to the 12th century, supposedly from the fact that all the houses there were built of wood (in spite of Richard I’s farsighted edict that all houses should be built of stone to avoid the risk of fire). It could also be that, as with so many other streets in the Cheapside area, it was given the name wood because wood was sold there.

The street was particularly infamous because of the Wood Street compter, mainly a debtors’ prison, but which also served to take in overflow from Newgate, and had three sections – where you were depended on whether you were rich, poor, or comfortably well off.  Prisoners were transferred here in the 16th century from the Bread Street compter and then, in the 18th century, the occupants of Wood Street compter were, in turn, transferred to the Giltspur Street compter.

The debtors’ prisons played a big role in the life of the young Dickens and, consequently, in his writing. His own father had been sent to Marshalsea in Southwark because of a debt to a baker. This meant that Dickens had to leave school at the age of 12 to work in a factory.