London’s spicy streets: Shakespeare, Mack the Knife, and murder

Saffron Hill cropOn Twitter today, I saw a story about what is thought to be what could be the only known portrait of Shakespeare made in his lifetime. The illustration appears in the frontispiece to a biography of pioneering botanist John Gerard, author of The Herball or Generall Historie of Plants, the first catalogue of any one garden, public or private.

There is still a Saffron Hill near Smithfield (it was at one time a slum mentioned by Charles Dickens), but the street once called Little Saffron Hill was renamed Herbal Hill in the 1930s to honour Gerard and his work.

All of which leads us nicely to London’s spicy streets, of which there are many. In fact, according to the excellent website www.streatsoflondon.com, there are 493 roads named after food and drink in Greater London; of these over half consist of either fruits or herbs and spices. Lavender is the second most popular food item and can be found in 29 streets.

Camomile StreetOne of these is Lavender Hill, which was so named because of the lavender was grown in the area’s 18th-century market gardens. There are also a Lavender Road and Lavender Terrace nearby.

Similarly, Camomile Street and Wormwood Street are so called because they form part of the route of the original London Wall, where the land was once kept free of houses and allowed to grow wild.

One of the wild flowers that grew here were camomile (from the Greek for ‘earth apple’), used to treat ills such as hay fever, insomnia, and upset stomachs. Wormwood, used to flavour vermouth and absinthe, was said to have gained its name because it grew up in the path followed by the serpent when he was evicted from Paradise.

Mint Street in Southwark is named for mint, but of a different kind: Henry VIII established a royal mint here around 1543 at the home of his brother-in-law Charles Brandon. The mint was used until its demolition in 1557; smaller houses were then built in the area. Until the early 18th century the area was a criminal quarter, a recognized sanctuary for thieves and debtors, and a haunting ground for marriage brokers.

Two of the people who sought refuge in the area were Jonathan Wild and Jack Sheppard, notorious highwaymen. It was Sheppard upon whom John Gay based Macheath, the central character of his 1728 work The Beggar’s Opera. Macheath later became Mack the Knife in The Threepenny Opera by  Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill.

Cinnamon Street in London first appeared at the end of the 17th century and probably comes from the fact that the spice was sold there. It has rather gruesome connections: it was in this street that John Williams was staying when a blood-stained knife was discovered among his belongings and suspicion fell upon him in relation to the Ratcliff Highway Murders.

These murders, which pre-dated the activities of Jack the Ripper, caused the Wapping area as much terror and confusion. It cased a public outcry, rewards were offered by the government, and over 40 people were arrested for the crimes before the finger of suspicion pointed at Williams. Whether or not he was actually guilty (and there is a modern theory that he was framed) was never proved: he hanged himself before the hearing.

Hop Gardens cropOther spicy streets include Basil Street, Caraway Close, Clove Street, Coriander Avenue, Fennel Close, Mace Street, Nutmeg Close, Oregano Drive, Saffron Hill, Sage Way, Tarragon Close, and Thyme Close.

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Pudding Lane: fire and culinary London streets

FIsh Street Hill EC3“By and by Jane comes and tells me that she hears that above 300 houses have been burned down tonight by the fire we saw, and that it was now burning down all Fishstreet by London Bridge.” So wrote Samuel Pepys on 2 September 1666, following the start of the Great Fire of London in the early hours of that morning.The fire started in the house of the king’s baker, in Pudding Lane, which we have looked at in a recent post on the grosser names of London’s streets. It does lead to another category – that of culinary London, with comestibles and potables from seafood in Albacore Cresent to herbs in Yarrow Cresent by way of Milk Street.

Old Fish StSurprisingly, when it comes to these culinary names, they are often logical. More logical than so many of London’s street names, in any case. The Fish Street that Pepys writes about was once the main road leading to London Bridge, and was called New Fish Street (as opposed to Old Fish Street, which was demolished in 1870). In the 13th century it became the centre for fishmongers who settled there because of its proximity to the main fish market of Billingsgate; the street was one of the authorized spots for retail fish sales.

Today’s Fish Street Hill leads past the Monument; the reminder for everyone of the Great Fire. It is 202 feet high (202 feet said to be the distance to the spot where the fire broke out).

Monument 2The streets that lead off of Cheapside also say exactly what they were. Cheapside was an early shopping street: it was one of the busiest thoroughfares in London and the city’s main food market. The name comes from the Anglo-Saxon ‘ceap’, to buy or barter and it was originally known as West Cheap to distinguish it from Eastcheap. The medieval grocery shopper would have gone there for staples such as bread, milk, honey, poultry, and fish, and the streets that lead off Cheapside were named for their specialities.

Edward I decreed in 1302 that bakers could sell bread only from Bread Street. Before that, the “leprous women of St James’s” were allowed a tenement here in 1204; part of the street was later destroyed by fire in 1263. The street also became famous (or infamous) for its prison, or compter. The warden was so harsh on his prisoners that he was sent to Newgate Prison. The poet John Milton was born in this street and one entrance of the famous Mermaid Tavern led onto Bread Street while the other was on Friday Street.

Bread StArtichoke Hill, east of Tower Bridge, has a name that derives from an inn sign; the artichoke was adopted because of its comparative rarity and unusual shape, which lent itself well to signs. Artichokes were introduced in England in the 16th century, during the reign of Henry VIII, and the sign of the artichoke became a symbol for gardeners and was a common one for inns in garden areas.

Camomile StreetIn the 12th and 13th centuries, houses were built no closer than about five metres from the old London Wall and the land along the line of the wall was allowed to grow wild. Two of the wild flowers that grew here were camomile and wormwood, and this is reflected in the two streets of this name that still exist. Wormwood, used to flavour vermouth and absinthe, was said to have gained its name because it grew up in the path followed by the serpent when he was evicted from Paradise.

Saffron Hill was given its name because, among other things, it was grown in the gardens here belonging to John Kirkby, who had been awarded the bishopric of Ely and bequeathed his estate to the see of Ely to be used as a palace. Saffron was the main source of the spice for the City dwellers: apart from its colour, it was useful for disguising meat that may have seen its best.

Continuing the herbs and spices theme, Cinnamon Street is a name that appears at the end of the 17th century and probably comes from the fact that the spice was sold there. It was in this street, at the culinarily appropriately named Pear Tree Inn, that John Williams was staying when blood-stained knife was discovered among his belongings and suspicion fell upon him in relation to the Ratcliff Highway Murders.

Garlick HillGarlick Hill also has a slightly gruesome history, but first the name: yes, indeed, garlic features here. The hill was named for the hythe, or wharf, where shipments of garlic were landed on the Thames. It is not unlikely that enough garlic would have been sold in medieval times to warrant an entire parish being called Garlickhythe and the parish church is St James Garlickhythe. During some building work in the church in 1839, an almost perfectly mummified corpse was discovered, and nicknamed Jimmy Garlick.

Pineapple Christchurch GreyfriarsFinally, Pineapple Court. The fruit was introduced to England in the 17th century; like the artichoke, its shape and novelty made it popular on signs, especially those of confectioners. Christopher Wren was said to be so taken with the shape that he adopted it in the decorations of all his buildings (though many of them resemble acorns more than pineapples).

This is by no means intended to be a comprehensive list of London’s culinary street names; it is more just to give a flavour of how important food was in early London.

However, for a complete list of London’s culinary street names, there is a great website called Streats of London, which identifies 495 London streets and images of 147 street signs. It provides not only a comprehensive list but a great graphic representation of the culinary street names of London and is the work of Mykal Shaw, who cycled 3,000 miles throughout London to photograph the signs.

Keats, wormwood, gates and health springs

This day in London history: on 18 December, 1795, the poet John Keats (who was born on 31 October) was baptized in the church of St Botolph-without-Bishopsgate. The church is mentioned as early as 1212, when it was called Sancti Botolfi Extra Bishopesgate, though worship on the site dates back to Roman times. Edward Alleyn was also baptized here, as was an infant son of Ben Jonson.

Bishopsgate takes its name from the ‘Bishop’s Gate’, an entrance to the city for the Bishops of London, and probably named for St Erkenwald, Bishop of London in the 7th century.There were seven original ‘gates’ as part of London Wall: Aldgate, Aldersgate, Bishopsgate, Cripplegate, Ludgate, Moorgate, and Newgate.

The churchyard adjoining the buildings runs along Wormwood Street, also part of the route of the original London Wall. At one time the land here was kept free of houses, and the land along the line of the old London Wall was allowed to grow wild. One of the wild flowers that grew here was wormwood; this herb, used to flavour vermouth and absinthe, was said to have gained its name because it grew up in the path followed by the serpent when he was evicted from Paradise.

Although Keats went to medical school in London, his heart was that of a poet, and he finally abandoned the studies that would enable him to become a member of the Royal College of Surgeons. He moved to Hampstead (where the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge also lived) and lodged initially in Well Walk.

Well Walk takes its name from the medicinal waters of Hampstead, which was once the health centre of London: in the 18th century it was still very much a rural area and waters from the Chalybeate Springs, for the wealthy Londoners, were every bit as good as those in Bath. The springs are still there, no longer potable, however, and covered over. Legend has it that the springs arose on the spot where a monk, who was carrying a bottle of the Virgin Mary’s tears, tripped and spilled his precious cargo.