From health and love to worship: London’s abstract noun streets

I forgot to mention in the last (Groundhog Day inspired) post that someone has already tackled the thorny issue of the name of Punxsutawney Phil’s home: Gobbler’s Knob. Which generally causes amusement in Britain and not in America. You can read more here on that issue.

But back to noun streets. The eagle-eyed among you will have noticed that the last post was limited to concrete nouns. That’s partly because they have better names and stories, and – full disclosure here – I had more pictures of those street signs. (And I have more information on them.)

I can offer you, however, a couple of abstract noun street names, including the Vale of Health in Hampstead, which was once marshy land and anything but healthy. According to Volume 9 of A History of the County of Middlesex, “The name the Vale of Health, recorded in 1801, may have originated as a euphemism which was exploited or as a new name invented in a deliberate attempt to change the image of the place.”

By the 19th century the area had become more fashionable; Leigh Hunt lived there and attracted a circle of literary friends including Byron and Shelley. DH Lawrence lived in the Vale, as did Edgar Wallace.

Building in the Vale was halted towards the end of the 19th century when the 1871 Act for the Preservation of the Heath decreed that development in the Vale could not encroach on the heath.

From health to love, or something like it: there is a Love Lane near London Wall, which – is so called, John Stow wrote candidly in his Survey of London, “of wantons.” Bawdy street names were not uncommon in early London, and you can read more about them here.

There were once other Love Lanes in the City of London (and there is still one in Greenwich), and a more innocent connotation was that the name referred to a sort of lovers’ lane where courting couples used to stroll.

Worship Street (one known as Hog Lane), has a name that, technically, is nothing to do with worship. There was once a merchant tailor called John Worshop who owned over six acres of land in the area. It is likely that the street was named for him, and then corrupted to its present form. Happily, though, the street contained an old foundry once used as a place of worship by John Wesley.

There is a Retreat Place in Hackney, which takes its name from almshouses. In 1812 Samuel Robinson founded and funded almshouses for twelve poor widows. The houses were called ‘The Widow’s Retreat’ and the street that ran past it was similarly named.

Along those lines, Asylum Road in Peckham takes its name from the Victuallers Asylum, built in the 19th century to aid distressed members of the Victuallers Trade or their wives.

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.

From Batty and Prudent to Sly and Wild: adjectives in London’s street names

Batty Street cropToday’s random fact: the Livery Companies of London (which have direct connections with many street names) were also known as ‘mysteries’. From the Latin misterium, which in this instance roughly translates as ‘closed circle’, or ‘professional skill’. I got to that by looking up more about the Fruiterers’ Company, of which Edward Lear’s father was a member.  The Worshipful Company
of Fruiterers, has been in existence since before 1300 AD, and is 45th in order of precedence of the Livery Companies.

Edward Lear died on this day in 1888. He was born in Bowman’s Mews in Islington (off Seven Sisters Road) the mews takes its name from the fact that the area was a popular site for archery in Elizabethan times.

All of which is nothing to do with my intended post for today, but it shows how wondering about street names is a journey with many varied and wonderful destination. A recent post featured verb street names, and Allgood Street was one of yesterday’s offerings. That made me think ‘parts of speech’ and today I give you adjectives.First a disclaimer: I’m not including colours in this, but there are colourful streets here and here, or the old and new type of street names. There are more than enough adjectives, of which I can cover only a few here, starting with Batty Street.

Prudent PassageBatty is actually, in this, instance, probably a name: There was a William Batty who developed property in London so it could have been named for him. It has connections with a Victorian locked room murder mystery (not a professional skill type), which occurred around the time of the Jack the Ripper murders.

Crisp Road in Hammersmith is also a name: it honours Sir Nicholas Crisp (or Crispe) who, according to Samuel Johnson was “a man of loyalty that deserves perpetual remembrance”. Crisp was a supporter of King Charles I, and his loyalty was such that his funeral arrangements included provision for his heart to be placed in an urn under the effigy of his king. The heart was to be refreshed annually with a glass of wine.

Crooked Usage in North London has a name that goes back to Anglo-Saxon times when land was divided into strips – usages – which were separated by grass borders. The theory is that, though the usages should have been straight, there was a crooked allotment that, by virtue of being different was worthy of having its name live on.

Early Mews in Camden, alas, has no Late or Tardy street to balance it out. But, of course, this name has nothing to do with time: it comes from the Early family. Joseph and George, plumbers, and John, a builder, built the mews as well as much of the early 19th-century development that was carried on around Camden High Street.

The song ‘Electric Avenue’ by Eddy Grant refers to the Brixton riots of 1981, and the Electric Avenue of the song is a street that 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”.

Fleet Street comSavage Gdnses from the River Fleet, so named not because it was swift, but from an Anglo-Saxon word ‘fleot’ meaning a creek or tidal inlet. Although it still flows, the Fleet is now underground and is used as a sewer – a function that it has performed since 14th-century butchers used it for cleaning out entrails and others took up the habit by dumping refuse into the stream.

Lacy Road in Putney has a lovely, delicate-sounding name that is, however, nothing to do with lace. It takes its name from John Lacy – who was, by happy coincidence, a cloth worker; he had a house by the river, Putney Palace, which was demolished in the early 19th century. Centuries ago the Putney area was a fashionable one; wealthy London citizens liked to have a ‘country’ house in a riverside location, and Lacy was no exception. Elizabeth I and James I were apparently among the guests whom Lacy entertained at his country home.

The derivation of Prudent Passage is uncertain. One theory is that it may have been something to do with “the foresight displayed in its construction”. More entertaining is the theory that it once served the same useful function as Passing Alley, and therefore was a prudent route to take on the way home after spending too many hours in the pub.

Peerless Street is more of a disguise than an indication of any superlative quality. The name comes from a spring that overflowed and formed a pond – Perilous Pond – so-called, says Stow, because “divers youths, by swimming therein, have drowned”. The pond, with its unfortunate propensity for drowning people, was finally closed off. In 1743, William Kemp, a jeweller, converted the pond to a luxury swimming bath with a well-stocked fish pond next to it. The path alongside the bath was called Peerless Row and later became Peerless Street. The pool was closed in 1850 and then built over.Sly Street

There is a Quick Street in Islington, and also a a Speedy Place near King’s Cross, but neither of these names are anything to do with swiftness. The first was named for John Quick, George III’s favourite comedian, and the second for the Speedy family who held the licence for a tavern there called the Golden Boot.

Savage Gardens, near Tower Hill, takes its name from Sir Thomas Savage, who was created Viscount Savage in 1626. He married Elizabeth Darcy, who deserves admiration above all for having provided her husband with eleven sons and nine daughters.

Sly Street in East London sounds pretty devious, but it has a perfectly innocent name: in 1890 the St Georges in the East member of the London County Council was a Mr RS Sly.

Wild CourtVigilant Close, though it sounds worthy, comes from one of the locomotives on the Crystal Palace High Level railway, which ran on this site.

Wild Court (and Wild Street) are tamer than they sound. In this case, ‘wild’ is a corruption of Weld, and refers to the wealthy Humphrey Weld who, in the 17th century, had an elaborate mansion in the area. The house had its own chapel and extensive library and, at the time of its construction, enjoyed splendid isolation in what is now the Covent Garden and theatre area. At the time, what later became Wild Street was only a track leading to Weld’s house.

London’s Duke of Monmouth street names

Today’s random fact: there is a chemist’s shop in Monmouth; apparently the bow window of this shop, according to John Betjeman, “must never be demolished”.

Never let it be said that I miss the opportunity for tenuous links, so on to James Scott, 1st Duke of Monmouth (and other titles), illegitimate son of King Charles II, who has connections with a number of London streets and their names.

There is an Allgood Street in London, formerly named Henrietta Street after Henrietta, 6th Baroness Wentworth. Although she was due to marry Richard Tufton, 5th Earl of Thanet, she took up with the already-married Monmouth, and used her jewels and wealth to help fund his unsuccessful attempts to capture the throne.

Monmouth was beheaded for treason 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.

Then there is Orange Street in the West End. 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. Monmouth’s stables, partly on the site of Orange Street, were probably called Orange Mews (from the colour of his coat of arms).

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 messily beheaded five years before.

We mentioned Soho briefly in yesterday’s post; it was where John Logie Baird first demonstrated the principles of the television. By coincidence, Mozart, who was born on this day in 1756, lived in Frith Street as a youngster.

Soho Square, which was built in the late 17th century, was originally called King’s Square, after Charles II. When building began in 1681, apparently there were only a few residents, one of whom was the Duke of Monmouth. The word ‘soho’ comes from an ancient battle cry; Monmouth used ‘Soho!’ as a rallying cry for his troops at the Battle of Sedgemoor, the final battle in his rebellion.

London’s Australia streets: from Batman Close to Sydney Street

On Australia Day it makes sense to look at a couple of streets with (mostly tenuous, what else?) connections with Australia, starting with Batman Close in White City. It is named for John Batman, the Australian who founded a settlement on the River Yarra; that settlement later became the city of Melbourne.

Australia Road is nearby, and there is a Melbourne Place off the Strand, presumably so named because it is the centre for the Australian government and business centres. Melbourne Grove in Dulwich, on the other hand, takes its name from a group of Derbyshire place names. Sydney Street in Chelsea off the King’s Road (and Sydney Place) are named for Viscount Sydney.

These and other streets were part of a 84-acre site left in trust in 1627 by Alderman Henry Smith of the City of London for “the relief and ransom of poor captives being slaves under Turkish pirates”. The trustees of the estate, largely aristocratic, named many of the streets after themselves.

There is also a Sidney Street (yes, that’s cheating as is is spelled differently), and that was the scene of the Sidney Street riots, during which Winston Churchill, Home Secretary of the time, narrowly missed being shot.

Speaking of Churchill, two days ago marked the anniversary of his death at his house in Kensington Gore, marked by a blue plaque. This comes from nothing gruesome, but from the Old English word ‘gara’, which was a triangular piece of land left after irregularly shaped fields had been ploughed.

Triangles notwithstanding, a retired British pharmacist, John Tinegate, used to make fake blood for the stage and screen; it was later trademarked Kensington Gore and that became a generic term for fake blood.

Nothing to do with Australia, but on this day in 1926, Scottish engineer and inventor John Logie Baird demonstrated the first working television system in a laboratory in Soho’s Frith Street. The street takes its name from 17th-century property developer Richard Frith.

The name Soho itself is generally accepted to have come from an ancient hunting cry; apparently ‘tally ho!’ is the cry when a fox breaks cover and ‘soho!’ is when huntsmen uncouple the dogs.

Carting, Mincing, and Staining Lanes: London’s verb streets

But first, a random fact for today. (I love learning random snippets of information and in the assumption that my readers are of similar mind, I will start to share some of them, mostly nothing to do with London street names.)

I’ve had occasion to mention Hereford before in this blog, as being one of the cities that lays claim to being the birthplace of Nell Gwynn. Well, I learned recently that Frank Oz was born there. Yes, that Frank Oz: voice of Miss Piggy, Grover, and Yoda, among others; corrections officer in Blues Brothers, and booking cop in Trading Places; and director of a number of movies including Little Shop of Horrors, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, and In & Out.

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A replica of the Webb lamp still stands in Carting Lane.

Back to London street names, starting with Carting Lane.

This is one of those streets where residents said it like it was and in the mid 19th century the name was changed in deference to the residents’ sensibilities. This lane off the Strand and near to the Savoy Hotel was once Dirty Lane. The new name may reflect the traffic of carts bringing goods to and from the wharfs at the end of the lane.

But of more interest and entertainment than the derivation of the new name is the reason for the lane’s erstwhile nickname.

Towards the end of the 19th century a Mr JE Webb patented an invention that was destined to shake the world. His sewer gas destructor lamp, which was designed both to reduce the hazards (and odour) of explosive methane gas that built up in sewers, and also to cast light on the streets of England’s cities.

With a flame generated by burning the normal gaslight gas, sewer gases were drawn up and burnt off along with the regular gas to produce less unstable (and less smelly) carbon dioxide and water vapour. The invention was hailed as a brilliant innovation, and Webb soon sold thousands of lamps worldwide. One of his masterpieces even stood in Carting Lane, next to the nearby Savoy, and cast its light on the rich and famous guests of the day (whose waste also helped to power it).

The lamp, not unnaturally, also gave rise to the nickname of ‘Farting Lane’.

Mincing Lane cropMincing Lane, whatever pictures the name may conjure up, is nothing to do with an odd way of walking or of meat grinding.

John Stow tells us (and this seems to be generally accepted) that it was once “Mincheon lane, so called of tenements there sometime pertaining to the Minchuns or nuns of St Helens in Bishopsgate.” The word derives from the Old English feminine of ‘monk’, and the name dates back to the 12th century.

The 17th-century speculator Nicholas Barbon, who has connections to Red Lion Square, and was not always known for attention to detail on his building projects, developed some houses in Mincing Lane; with one development “all the vaults fell in and the houses came down most scandalously”.

Somewhat more successful is Minster Court; a complex of three office buildings in Mincing Lane, it made a cameo appearance in Disney’s 101 Dalmations as the exterior of Cruella De Vil’s fashion house.

Staining LaneStaining Lane was called Staningelane in the 12th century; this is from the Old English ‘Staeninga haga’. The ‘Staeninga’ part refers to people of Staines but the ‘haga’ is viewed variously by different people as an enclosure, a town house, or a part of the city under a different jurisdiction.

John Stow’s theory, however, and one which no-one else seems to buy into, is that the lane was named for the ‘painter stainers’ who lived there; a picture on canvas was at one time known as a stained cloth.

A church of St Mary Staining, said to be dedicated to the men of Staines, was lost in the Great Fire of 1666 and never rebuilt, though there is now a park on the site where the church stood.

Incidentally, Staines was once in Middlesex, which no longer exists as a county, and is now in Surrey. In 2012 the town changed its name to Staines-upon-Thames, apparently because of the town’s association with spoof rapper Ali G, created by Sacha Baron Cohen.

Sublime and ridiculous in London names: Bleeding Heart Yard and Cripplegate

It’s time for a reality check. I received another I-hope-it-was-a-gentle rebuke from reader MattF, who warned me against taking to heart some of the less likely explanations of why streets are called what they’re called. My aim is to entertain as well as inform, so I like to air as many views as I can find about street name derivations, but equally, MattF has a point so I’ll try to make it clear which theories are probably complete eyewash and which may be plausible.

On that note, I thought it might be fun to look again at some of the weirder street names I’ve come across, and some of the many theories behind those names.

Starting with where my pursuit of London street names began: Bleeding Heart Yard. Dickens helped make the yard famous: there is a chapter in Little Dorrit entitled ‘Bleeding Heart Yard’. “The opinion of the Yard,” said Dickens, “was divided respecting the derivation of its name. The more practical inmates abided by the tradition of a murder.”

The other inhabitants believed that the name came from a young woman was imprisoned by her father for not marrying the man he chose for her. She sighed and wasted away, murmuring, “Bleeding heart, bleeding heart, bleeding away.” Dickens, like MattF, said: “Neither party would listen to the antiquaries who delivered learned lectures in the neighbourhood, showing the Bleeding Heart to have been the heraldic cognizance of the old family to whom the property belonged.”

(Incidentally, one family name that is bandied about in the heraldic cognizance – distinctive emblem – as being the basis of the name is the Douglas family, as in Douglas motorcycles, which has a heart in its crest.)

There are other theories about the name, but the most dramatic – and least likely – is that a beautiful gypsy made a deal with the devil in order to be able to capture the heart of a rich lord. She did so, married him, and then lost her heart – literally – to Old Nick. He appeared unexpectedly at a ball one night and carried her off. As she was whisked through the air, her cloak fell to the ground in what is now Cloak Lane and one of her shoes fell in Shoe Lane. The revellers at the ball were revolted to discover a bleeding human heart in the courtyard.

“So who can doubt the legend?” asked a 19th-century writer who compiled a dictionary of London street names. “And yet those incredulous sceptics, who destroy our beautiful legends one by one, seek to explain the name by the assertion that it was originally Bleeding Hart Yard, a forgotten sign or family cognizance, and I am inclined to think they are right.”

I was also called up (sort of) on the last post for mentioning Newgate and ignoring Cripplegate. To be fair, there are a few London ‘gate’ names and I’ve covered them in various other posts. And even I couldn’t fit Cripplegate into the ‘new’ theme. But that’s another one with theories ranging from plausible to downright weird.

Before I start, let me quote MattF on the derivation of Cripplegate’s name: “…please don’t give any more oxygen to the nonsense that it’s named after cripples.”

Ok, so it’s not the real reason for the name. Here’s the theory anyway: allegedly, when Edmund the Martyr’s body was brought through the gate in 1010, some cripples were miraculously cured.

(Whether it’s relevant or not, Edmund is the patron saint of pandemics. Why do pandemics have a patron saint? Anybody out there know?)

MattF puts the proper explanation for the name very well, so over to him: “It was connected to the Barbican by a “crepel” – a covered tunnel or passage in Old English – and referred to as the Crepelgate back in the 11th century.”

Incidentally, there is a medieval church, St Giles-without-Cripplegate, which is so named because when it was built it was without (outside) the city wall. St Giles is the patron saint of lepers and cripples.