What’s so funny about Ha Ha Road?

Ha ha sign 4Following on from yesterday’s post about the Top 10 most unusual names in the City of London, it seemed a good idea to look at some other unusual names, not just in the City but in all of London, starting today with perhaps, one of the most fun(ny) names in London: Ha Ha Road in Greenwich. Not only is this most definitely a name to catch the attention, it one about which there is no dispute as to the derivation.

Simple: a ‘ha ha’ is a sunken ditch which serves as a boundary marker for property, rather than a high wall that could block the landowner’s view.However, there is slight dispute as to the derivation of the term ‘ha ha’ itself. One school of thought says it is an exclamation of surprise from the unwary strollers who suddenly find themselves in a ditch, another that it is the reaction of any spectators who see their companions abruptly disappearing from sight.

Ha ha 4

The ha ha of Ha Ha Road

Whatever the derivation of its name, this cunning device was adopted in Kensington Gardens by Charles Bridgman, a fashionable designer of gardens in the 18th century who was hired by George II’s queen, Caroline of Ansbach. The gardens, which had been a part of Kensington Palace since William III bought Nottingham House and converted it for his use, went though several changes before George II first opened the gardens to the public – provided that they were “respectably dressed people”.

Respectably dressed they may have been, but that didn’t prevent George II from being mugged there. He was in the habit of taking a solitary stroll around the gardens every morning and one day was approached by a man who jumped over a wall (had there been a ha ha in that spot presumably the mugging would never have taken place).

The man, who claimed to be financially distressed, very respectfully asked the king to hand over his money, watch and shoe buckles. The one-sided transaction was carried out, and the king mentioned that there was a seal on his watch chain of little monetary, but great sentimental, value. The man promised to take it off the chain and return it provided George said nothing of the robbery. The king agreed, and the seal was returned the next day at the same time.

Weird and wonderful street names of London

Yesterday I read a great blog post  by Fun London Tours about the City of London’s 10 most unusual street names. Nearly all of them have been included in this blog, or lined up to be so at some point,  so I thought today I would provide a companion piece by way of some more detail on some of the streets mentioned.

EAS_4029Knightrider Street: This street featured in this blog when I was writing about some of the streets I would be going through or near when I took part in the MoonWalk London 2014. The obvious explanation is that it is from knights riding to riding from the Tower Royal to jousting tournaments at Smithfield but there is more to it than that, with some spoilsports arguing that knightrider is not a word.  (And, Fun London Tours blog points out, “David Hasselhoff has his own little shrine in the adjacent Centrepage pub!”)

Friday StFriday Street: It may have taken its name from Frigdaeges, an Old English name, but most people plump for John Stow’s theory that it was “so called of fishmongers dwelling there and serving Friday’s market”. There was a time in Catholic England when eating meat on Friday was forbidden and, at least one meat eater was executed for that crime. Friday is, it seems, the only day of the week represented in London street names.

French Ordinary Court cropFrench Ordinary Court: Leading off another street unusual name (Crutched Friars), this small street was given its name because in the 17th century the Huguenots were allowed by the French Ambassador, who had his residence in Crutched Friars, to sell coffee and pastries. They also served fixed price meals; in those days such a meal was called an ‘ordinary’.

cock laneLove Lane: There’s no better way of putting it than to quote the inimitabel John Stow, who said bluntly that it was “so called of wantons”. Love, but with a price tag. There are many streets with names that have bawdy and that category could include Cock Lane, as Fun London Tours naughtily suggests.

Cock Lane could take its name from the fact that the only place where the City’s prostitutes could live; it may also have a less lewd (though bloody) explanation for its name. Cock Lane was, perhaps, most famous for its ghost.
Wardrobe Terrace crop

Wardrobe Place: Amazingly, what it seems: in 1359 a house belonging to Sir John Beauchamp was purchased by Edward II and became the storeroom for the royal clothing. The house was destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666 but the name lives on. The area was mentioned in Shakespeare’s will, when he bequeathed land near the Wardrobe to his daughter.

Cripplegate Street: This takes its name from one of London’s Roman city gates, supposedly thus named because when Edmund the Martyr’s body was brought through the gate in 1010, some cripples were miraculously cured. This theory has its detractors, who claim that the name comes from ‘crepul’ – a tunnel or covered way, which was constructed for the sentries there.

Mincing Lane cropMincing Lane: This Lane, with connections to Jimmy Choo and Cruella de Ville, takes its name from nothing to do with funny walks. The word derives from the Old English feminine of ‘monk’, and the name dates back to the 12th century. According to London historian John Stow, it was once “Mincheon lane, so called of tenements there sometime pertaining to the Minchuns or nuns of St Helens in Bishopsgate.”

EAS_4136St Mary Axe: This name involves an axe and a Saint Mary, and takes its name from the church of the same name, later combined with St Thomas Undershaft. Supposedly Maurius, father of King Cole – gave his daughter Ursula permission to travel to Germany with 11,000 virgins who were subsequently slain by an enraged Attila and his Huns.

EAS_4139With all due respect to the blog that inspired this particular post, it is hard to talk about St Mary Axe without mentioning another weird and wonderful City of London street name: Undershaft.

Crutched FriarsCrutched Friars: A relatively new name (the street was once called, less interestingly, Hart Street), it derives its current name from a holy order, the Crossed Friars, an Augustinian order who wore habits that were blue with, usually, a red cross on the back.

Hanging Sword Alley: This name can be traced back as early as 1564, when a large Tudor house was known by the sign of the Hanging Sword. The area was popular with fencing masters and the sign may have referred to this occupation. The alley was also known at one time by the sinister name of Blood Bowl Alley, after a 14th century inn, depicted in Plate 9 of Hogarth’s ‘Industry and Idleness’ series.

EAS_3921Of course, if we’re looking at gory street names in the City of London, a particular favourite is Bleeding Heart Yard.

Jane Austen, Oliver Cromwell, and a notorious pickpocket

16 December in London’s history: Jane Austen was born on this day in 1775. One of the most widely-read authors in English history, Austen spent her early life in Hampshire, moving to Bath and later Southampton with her family.

Austen did, however, visit London on occasion to visit her brother Henry, who was also her literary agent. One of the places she would have stayed was Henry’s residence in Hans Place, Knightsbridge. Hans Place was named after Hans Sloane, who founded the British Museum and also brought cocoa to England.

Also on this day in London’s history, Oliver Cromwell was appointed as appointed as Lord Protector of England, Scotland and Ireland. There are many London associations with Cromwell, including Whitehall and Long Acre, where he lived; Cripplegate, where he was married; Tyburn, where his body underwent a mock execution on the 12th anniversary of the beheading of Charles I; and Red Lion Square, where his remains were reputed have been interred briefly before that mock execution.

Other Cromwell connections include Horseferry Road, where he is supposed to have taken the ferry; and Fleet Street, where the pickpocket Moll Cutpurse targeted Cromwell supporters.

Gin, lions, and the Black Prince

According to that hugely fun website, Party Excuses, today is National Gin Day (World Gin Day is June 14), and an 18th-century act, which had its own effect on London’s street names, features in our post that includes Black Lion Lane.

Following on from an act of 1736 that imposed phenomenal fines on licences for drinking houses, there was The Sale of Spirits Act 1750 (commonly known as the Gin Act 1751), which effectively restricted the distribution of gin to larger distillers and retailers.

Other, less drastic, methods of attempting to curb gin drinking were to smooth the passage of the import of tea, and encouraging men to drink beer.

So, after all that discussion about black being a popular colour for taverns, it seems that, though there was a Black Lion inn recorded in the lane in 1668, it was probably a heraldic reference to Philippa of Hainault, queen of Edward III; her coat of arms includes black lions.

Philippa was mother of Edward, the Black Prince who gave his name to Black Prince Road in Lambeth and who, having predeceased his father by one year, has the unenviable claim of being the first English Prince of Wales not to become King of England.

Edward, whose name is likely to have come from the colour of his armour, makes an appearance as Sir William Colville in the movie A Knight’s Tale, though historical accuracy takes second place to drama.

An actor, horses, and a beheading


Edmund Kean as Sir Giles Overreach

The actor Edmund Kean was born in London on this day in 1737 (though some sources say otherwise). Kean was a regular patron of the Coal Hole tavern near Carting Lane (or Farting Lane, if you prefer), and his early schooling took place in Orange Street, near Leicester Square.

Orange Street was nothing to do with fruit. it is not the site of a former orchard or an orange-sellers’ haunt. One explanation is that it was named after William III, William of Orange and grandson of Charles I, who became joint monarch with his wife Mary in 1689. (Coincidentally, William was also born on the 4th of November, in 1650; he and Mary were married on the 4th of November 1677.)

Another explanation is that building of the street was begun in the 1670s and the area at that time was a favoured spot for stabling of courtiers’ horses. There were several mews there, including the Green and Blue Mews. The stables of James Scott, Duke of Monmouth, stood partly on the site of Orange Street;  it is likely that his stables were called Orange Mews to differentiate from the other colours.

The development of the street was finished in the 1690s; by then the unfortunate Monmouth would have had no interest in his horses, having been beheaded in 1685.

The story of Monmouth’s execution is a particularly grisly one: the executioner, Jack Ketch, had a bad day (though not quite as bad as Monmouth’s): he took five attempts with his axe to complete the job and even then had to finish it with a knife. The post of public executioner was a hated, albeit lucrative, one; Ketch, who held the post for more than two decades, was particularly loathed. After his death in 1686 his name was used to refer to all public executioners. It can also be used to refer to death or the devil.

Pageantmasters, Lord Mayors, and quills

EAS_4010Following on from a Twitter snippet provided by @CityandLivery today, let’s take a quick look at Pageantmaster Court. That, happily, takes its name from a Pageantmaster, currently Dominic Reid, and its connection to the Lord Mayor’s Show.

The Lord Mayor’s Show – the largest unrehearsed procession in the world – takes place this year on 8 November, the day after the new Lord Mayor takes up office. The tradition dates back to 1215 when King John allowed the Mayor of London to become one of the first elected offices in the modern world.

A condition of this was that every year the newly-elected Mayor should present himself at court and swear loyalty to the Crown. This duty became a more and more grand affair and, by the 16th century, was known worldwide as the Lord Mayor’s Show. London’s most famous diarist, Samuel Pepys, regularly recorded the event in his diaries, starting in 1660.

Key to the show is the Pageantmaster, who organizes the procession, inspects the route, and ensures that all runs smoothly and to time on the day. The importance of this role is reflected in Pageantmaster Court, a 20th-century name for a court that runs off Ludgate Hill. Every year the Pageantmaster processes past Pageantmaster Court during The Lord Mayor’s Show.


The quill in question

Incidentally, another duty of the Lord Mayor is to officiate at the Changing of the Quill ceremony, part of the John Stow Memorial Service at St Andrew Undershaft Church in St Mary Axe. This year’s event was presided over by the incumbent Lord Mayor, Fiona Woolf, who is only the second woman to have held the post.

Ham sandwiches and the Hellfire Club

Ham Yard Cherish London

Photo: Cherish London

Following on from yesterday’s exchange with Twitter buddy Cherish London (@Cherish_London), who posted a photo of the Lyric pub, let’s take a look at Ham Yard in the Soho district.

Gastronomy played a large part in the naming of taverns – and hence London streets: often the speciality of the house would be featured in the sign. There was a Ham tavern here as early as 1739 and there was also once a Tudor mill in this area (commemorated in Great Windmill Street, which intersects Ham Yard).

The Ham tavern became the Ham and Windmill and was renamed the Lyric in 1890.


19th century sandwich men

By happy coincidence, Ham Yard was once the congregation point for London’s ‘sandwich men’. Nothing to do with ham sandwiches, however: these were the walking billboards of the 19th century, described by Charles Dickens as “a piece of human flesh between two slices of paste board”.

These hardy souls, a result of a tax on advertising posters, would “walk the principal thoroughfares from morning to night with their boards high above their heads, secured to their shoulders by iron slips and a strap”. It was not an easy life, especially when high winds would pose a serious threat to their wellbeing. The sandwich men generally worked from 10am to 10pm with one break.

Before we leave Ham Yard and sandwich men, we should point out the most famous of sandwich men: John Montagu, the Earl of Sandwich, popularly believed to have created the sandwich because he did not want to move from his gaming table and so ordered some meat between two slices of bread so that it would be easier to eat.

Hellfire Caves

Modern entrance to the Hellfire Caves

Montagu was a member of the notorious Knights of St. Francis of Wycombe, also known as the Hellfire Club or the Medmenham Monks and founded by founded by Sir Francis Dashwood. The caves where the club would meet to drink and dine lavishly are still open as a tourist attraction and party venue.

Royal mistresses, swans, and Big Ben

Big Ben close-upOn 20 October 1714, George I was crowned king of England and on the same date in 1858 the great bell, nicknamed Big Ben, was winched into place (but it didn’t ring until the following year).

George, German by birth, ruled for 13 years but never learned to speak English. He is remembered, among other things, for his two mistresses, one of whom was very thin and the other very large. They were known as the Elephant and the Maypole (or Scarecrow), though some sources say they were also known as the Elephant and Castle.

There is a Swan Walk in Chelsea, which takes its name from a tavern sign; the swan was a common sign for inns, particularly waterside inns. This Swan was the finishing post for the famous Doggett Coat and Badge race – the oldest annually contested event in the British sporting calendar – a race founded in honour of George I’s accession to the throne.

Back to Big Ben: the bell is in what is now officially called the Elizabeth Tower, in honour of Elizabeth II, but is also, like the bell, referred to as Big Ben. At the top of the tower is In the lantern at the top of Elizabeth Tower is the Ayrton Light, which is lit when either House of Parliament is sitting after dark.

The light, named for Acton Smee Ayrton, the First Commissioner of Works (a cabinet post that no longer exists) in the early 1870s, was installed in 1885 at the request of Queen Victoria so that she could keep an eye on the Members of Parliament to make sure they weren’t shirking their duties.

The bell was cast by the Whitechapel Bell Foundry, which was established in 1570 and lays claim to being Britain’s oldest manufacturing company. Thousands of people turned out to watch the bell being taken from Whitechapel to Westminster in a cart that needed sixteen horses to pull it.

Incidentally, the Whitechapel Bell Foundry also cast the original Liberty Bell. More information on the foundry and both of these famous bells can be found here.

Edison, EM Forster, and Effie Gray


Electric Avenue in 1895

Thomas Alva Edison, inventor, businessman, and electricity pioneer, died on 18 October 1878, so today let’s look at a couple of Edison and electricity-related London streets, starting with Electric Avenue in Brixton.

This is another of those ‘what it sounds like’ names. This was opened as a 19th-century late-night shopping street, complete with electric lighting that was designed to be adequate for evening shoppers: “lined with shops, with a lavish display of electric light everywhere”.

In the following century, Guyana-born singer Eddy Grant had a 1983 hit with his song Electric Avenue, which by then was still a market street; his song referred to the 1981 riots in the Brixton area.

But back to Edison, who set up a company that was headquartered in Queen Victoria Street, near Cannon Street. Cannon Street takes its name not from artillery but from candlestick makers, and Queen Victoria Street takes its name from, well, Queen Victoria.

Queen Victoria Street, which runs from Cheapside to Victoria Embankment and is roughly parallel to the Thames, was originally part of Sir Christopher Wren’s plans for rebuilding the City of London after the Great Fire of 1666. However, it was more than two centuries before the street was built; it was officially opened in 1871 and was fitted with the first permanent electric lighting system in the City.

Also on this day, in 1910, EM Forster published Howard’s End. Forster, who was born in London, loathed the city when he was young; in an essay entitled ‘London’s a Muddle’, he says: “I used to denounce her for her pomp and vanity, and her inhabitants for their unmanliness and for their unhealthy skins”.

But, he went on to say, time had tamed him and, “while it is not practicable to love such a place…one can love bits of it and become interested in the rest”. He lived in Brunswick Square in London from 1930 to 1939. The square, built in 1795, was one of many places named in honour of Caroline of Brunswick, who suffered such a disastrous marriage to George IV.

John Ruskin, the Victorian art critic and champion of the pre-Raphaelites, was born in Brunswick Square. Ruskin’s wife, Effie Gray, who was painted by the pre-Raphaelite John Everett Millais, filed for and received an annulment to her marriage on the grounds of non-consummation due to Ruskin’s impotence.

Ruskin, for his part, claimed that he was not impotent but that Effie’s body was, in effect, as repulsive as her face was beautiful. Theories are that, on their wedding night, Ruskin may have been repulsed either by Effie’s pubic hair or by the fact that she may have been menstruating. As one source puts it: “The complex reasons for the non-consummation and ultimate failure of the Ruskin marriage are a matter of continued speculation and debate.”

A 2012 movie about the Ruskin’s doomed marriage, has recently been released; scripted by Emma Thompson, the movie’s release was delayed due to two lawsuits regarding claims of copyright infringement.

A tornado, some executions, and a beer flood

This day in London’s history saw at least three major events: a tornado, a mass execution, and a beer flood. On 17 October 1091, a massive tornado hit the city; as with the Great Fire of 1666, damage to property was greater than to human life, with only two deaths recorded. Around 600 houses are reported to have been flattened, the church of St Mary-le-Bow suffered severe damage, and the then-wooden London Bridge was demolished.

That was not the first time that London Bridge fell down; in 1014 it was a casualty of the conflict between Denmark, which had captured London, and Norway. This may have been the source of the nursery rhyme.

Executions a few centuries later accounted for more deaths than the tornado, when Charles II exacted revenge on some of the men who had been responsible for the death of his father, Charles I. The Indemnity and Oblivion Act 1660 had ensured that Charles II would pardon everyone involved in the regicide, except those who had been directly involved in Charles I’s execution.

Those people totalled about 30 at the time of the Act, but by the time of a trial in which the regicides were found guilty there were only 10 people left, the others having either died or, wisely, fled the country.

These 10 were sentenced to be executed; nine of them by the gruesome method of being hanged, drawn and quartered and one merely to be hanged. Some of the executions were carried out in Tyburn, where common criminals were normally despatched, and the others were carried out at Charing Cross, close to the Banqueting House of the Palace of Whitehall, where Charles I himself had been beheaded.

Charing Cross took its name from both the early hamlet of Charing, and the Eleanor cross that once stood there. The Eleanor crosses were a series of twelve crosses, erected by Edward I in memory of his wife Eleanor of Castile, who died near Lincoln. The crosses marked the spots where her body rested on its journey to London.

Finally, in 1814, the London Beer Flood took place (though some sources say it took place on 16 October); this was not as much fun as it sounds. The giant barrel of a brewery at the junction of Tottenham Court Road and Oxford Street split; the force of the tens of thousands of gallons of beer it spilt caused more vats to split and, in total, more than 300,000 gallons of liquid flooded the area, killing about eight people. A – possibly apocryphal – story is that a man later died of alcohol poisoning, having been unable to resist the excess of free beer.

Oh, yes, Tottenham Court Road takes its name from the manor house belonging to William de Tottenhall. The area was known variously as Totten, Totham, or Totting Hall and eventually, when the house was leased to Elizabeth I, it was generally known as Tottenham Court. Oxford Street is called that because it is part of the road leading from London to Oxford.