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.

Bow bells, elbows, and Dick Whittington

St Mary-Le-Bow

The church of St Mary-le-Bow

On 13 October 1397 Sir Richard Whittington was first elected Mayor of London. (That is, Lord Mayor of the City of London: a post that still exists as opposed to the Mayor of London, which is a post encompassing Greater London.)

There is much in the way of legend surrounding Dick Whittington; the main points of the folklore are that he was a poor boy from the north; that he went to London with his faithful cat to seek his fortune; that he attempted to flee the city in order to escape a menial job where he was beaten; and that he was persuaded to return by the sound of the Bow Bells promising him that he would be Mayor of London.

That’s all very well, and I hate to be a spoilsport, but it appears that the real-life Whittington was born in Gloucestershire in the Forest of Dean into a wealthy family and sent to London to learn the trade of mercer (cloth merchant). And there is no evidence that he owned a cat.

Even more disappointing, there is no real consensus on where he is supposed to reached before he was lured back by the sound of the bells. The most popular version is Highgate, and there is a Whittington Stone at the foot of Highgate Hill to commemorate the event. Other versions say Bunhill or Holloway.

The bells are the bells of St Mary-le-Bow in Bow Lane; tradition dictates that someone is only a Cockney if they are born within the sound of those bells. That then begs the question as to how Dick Whittington managed to hear the bells all the way from Highgate. (Incidentally, unlike Bow Street, the name of Bow Lane has nothing to do with its shape: the church was originally called St Mary de Arcubus from the arches upon which it was built.)

All of which brings us, in a suitably roundabout way, to Elbow Lane in the City of London, now called, less interestingly, College Street. In the 16th century it a street that ran west and then suddenly turned south, according to London historian John Stow, and was “therefore of that bending called Elbow Lane”.

The lane later became Great and Little Elbow Lanes and then, in 1839, was renamed College Street to commemorate the college established by Whittington. That was the College of St Spirit and St Mary; Sir Richard felt that the founding of the college would ensure that his soul would be well received by the right parties after his death. (The college was yet another institution dissolved by Henry VIII.)

Pierogis, Piccadilly, and petticoats in London

Petticoat Lane view(And Sigourney Weaver, as promised.)

The wonderful website Party Excuses says that today is National Pierogy Day, and who am I to argue? The pierogy, or pierogi, is part of the Polish cuisine, so it’s not too much of a stretch to Poland Street in London’s Soho district.

The street was once part of a patch of land used as horse pasture by its 16th-century owner and it would appear that Poland Street is on the site of what was once called Little Gelding’s Close. Early in the 17th century, Little Gelding’s Close, along with 19 other acres of land, was sold to Robert Baker, the builder of Piccadilly Hall.

The name of Poland Street first appears in 1689, deriving from an inn called King of Poland. It is assumed that the pub was named in commemoration of the victory of John Sobieski, King of Poland, over the Turks in 1683.

The poet Percy Shelley once lodged in Poland Street.

There is a nearby street once called King Street, presumably also in commemoration of said victory. It has since been renamed Kingly Street and renaming of streets leads us nicely into Sigourney Weaver.

Today marks Ms Weaver’s 65th birthday and, yes, there is a connection, however tenuous, between that fine actress and a street in London. Well, ok, there is a Weaver Street (near Shuttle Street) in Spitalfields, and those streets do reflect the fact that the silk weaving industry was once predominant there.

But that’s too easy. Another weaver connection is that of Petticoat Lane, about a mile from Weaver Street. Despite the fact that the lane was once a “filthy and wretched street”, according to James Elmes, who wrote A Topographical Dictionary of London and Its Environs, it did once benefit from nearby pleasant fields.

The gentry flocked to build their houses in these relatively rural surroundings, but were soon ousted by an “influx of the French Refugees in the reign of Louis XIV, it became the residence of the lowest class of their weavers”.

(A bit of a slur on the weavers, perhaps, because in 1155 the Weavers’ Company received  its charter and it is the oldest recorded City Livery Company.)

So the name, dating back to the 17th century, could be from the silk weavers, who would have made petticoats, and who settled in the area; or from the secondhand clothes dealers who had begun to trade in the lane even back then. By the 19th century the lane was, said Henry Mayhew, a 19th-century social researcher, journalist, and playwright,  “essentially the old clothes district”, and to look down the lane at the time was “to look down a vista of many-coloured garments”.

The reason for changing a perfectly good name is, presumably, Victorian prudery that deemed women’s undergarments an unsuitable item for a street name. This wasn’t the first time its name was changed, however: early names were Berwardes Lane (from a local landowner) in the 14th century and Hog Lane in the 16th century (because, like Huggin Hill, it ran through a pig farm.

FH Habben, an outspoken, and sometimes downright curmudgeonly-sounding, 19th-century London historian, who wrote extensively on the city’s street names, was somewhat outraged at the name change, calling it an “instance of inappropriate name change”. He, however, ignored the whole rag trade, stating firmly that the name came from “The English form, I presume, of petit court, the little short lane.”

(Maybe Habben would have been somewhat mollified to know that the street is still better known as Petticoat Lane than Middlesex Street.)

Oh, yes, it was called Middlesex Street because it once formed a boundary between the city of London and the country of Middlesex (which now exists in a different form).

Edgar Allen Poe, Will Ferrell, and the Grand Old Duke of York

Seething Lane signToday’s post is in honour of Edgar Allan Poe, who died on this day in 1849; perhaps his most famous poem was ‘The Raven’. Although it no longer exists, there was once a Black Raven Passage, which led out of Seething Lane.

Will Ferrell fans will appreciate the Scandinavian symbolism of the raven, which was sacred to Odin: in Anchorman, Ron Burgundy exclaims, “Great Odin’s raven!” Despite its worldwide reputation as a bird of ill omen, the raven in Christian symbolism represents God’s providence – an allusion to the raven that fed Elijah.

The raven was also an old Scottish badge and a Jacobite symbol, and is significant in many cultures – not least of which is London. There is a superstition surrounding the famous ravens of the Tower of London: “If the Tower of London ravens are lost or fly away, the Crown will fall and Britain with it.” For more on those ravens, there is a great article in the Fortean Times.

Mary Anne Clarke wikipedia

Mary Anne Clarke

The passage may have been the birthplace of the scandalous Mary Anne Clarke, who was, eventually, the mistress of Frederick, the Grand Old Duke of York.

Mary Anne, the daughter of a bricklayer, married a man called Clarke, whom she left when he went bankrupt. It appears that she was able to work her way into the circle of the rich and famous through liaisons with various well-to-do men.

By 1803 she had taken a large house in London and was entertaining in lavish fashion, using the name of Mrs Clarke. Once she had become Frederick’s mistress, and he did not keep her in the style that she felt was her due, Mary Anne began to obtain money from officers in the army in return for using her influence with the Duke of York, who was then Commander in Chief of the army.

A scandal ensued and charges were brought, though not proved against the Duke. He resigned his post (but was later reinstated) and broke it off with Mary Anne. She threatened to publish the letters he had written to her, and 10,000 copies of her memoirs were printed.

The Duke, however, paid her debts and gave her £400 to burn the books.

Cusack The Raven

John Cusack as Edgar Allan Poe

Back, briefly, to the raven: it seems that Shakespeare mentions the raven more than any other bird and, by happy coincidence, the screenplay of a 2012 US thriller movie based on Poe’s poem was co-written by Hannah Shakespeare.

(And, à propos of nothing other than blogger’s prerogative, that movie stars John Cusack, a particular favourite.)