London’s lost streets (part 3): Hercules, Ezekiel, and pickles

Our little romp through the extinct back streets of London draws to a close today, with a few more names inspired largely by inns and taverns. We start with Hercules Pillars Alley, which takes its name from a tavern that was there in 1668.

The pillars in question are the two rocks in the Straits of Gibraltar – the Rock of Gibraltar and Mount Hacho – that form the entrance to the Mediterranean. The legend is that they were once one rock and Hercules tore them apart so he could get past.

The Straits of Gibraltar were once considered virtually the end of the earth so the sign was particularly popular with taverns on the outskirts of a town. (Another name popular for such taverns was World’s End, and one gave its name to World’s End Passage in Chelsea.)

There was once a Hercules Pillars tavern in Piccadilly that was frequently visited by the Marquis of Granby (who gave his own name to many a pub), and it is mentioned in Tom Jones as the inn where Squire Western stays.

Hole in the Wall Passage took its name from another relatively common tavern name, which could have referred to an early ‘speakeasy’, an illegal drinking establishment.

Or it could have been reminiscent of debtors’ prisons: there were holes in the walls through which inmates were handed food, drink, money, and other tokens of charity. Other holes in walls were in lepers’ dens through which priests could bless the sufferers.

Alternatively, the name could hark back to the prophet Ezekiel who visited Jerusalem in spirit. When bade to dig at the hole in the wall he spied “every form of creeping things, and abominable beasts” – perhaps a comment on the patrons of the tavern in question?

Pickled Egg Walk, which was once a “place of low amusements” – took its name from the Pickled Egg tavern, not a particularly common name. The proprietor, who was not a Londoner, had a particularly delectable recipe for pickled eggs.

The story goes that Charles II (though some versions say it was his father, Charles I) once stopped there, sampled that delicacy for the first time, and enjoyed it. Royal pleasure was something that any canny landlord would capitalize on and this one was no exception, promptly naming the inn for his speciality.

Pickle Herring Street may not have taken its name not from a tavern; it may have been from the fact that the street was on the site of one of the Thames River’s old wharves – where cargoes of pickled herrings were shipped. The area was once known as ‘London’s larder’, from its use as the primary storage area for butter, cheese and, later, canned meat.

The name may also have come from the fact that Sir John Falstofe – who gave his name to Shakespeare’s Falstaff – lived on this spot in 1447. Falstofe was once a fish merchant, so it could have been his pickled herrings that gave the street its name.

As always, there are other possible explanations: though herrings were pickled in England as far back as the 14th century, it was more of a Dutch speciality. There is a record, in 1584, of a ‘Peter Van Duraunte alias Pickell Heringe’ being buried in Bermondsey.

Van Duraunte was actually a brewer, so the nickname is not obvious, unless he had an inn called the Pickled Herring; such an inn may have given rise to the street name. So it could have been from a tavern after all.

Three Cranes Lane took its name from a 16th-century inn, the sign of which depicted the bird type of crane. Many other inns and taverns with ‘crane’ in the name more commonly referred to the cranes that were used to hoist casks of wine.

However, as the helpful John Stow tells us, the lane was “so called not only of a sign of three cranes at a tavern door, but rather of three strong cranes of timber placed on the Vintry wharf by the Thames side, to crane up wines there”.

The tavern was a famous one: Ben Jonson and his fellow roisterers were patrons of the inn, and it was from here (“a little alehouse on the Bankside over against the Three Cranes”) that Pepys watched some of the conflagration of the Great Fire of 1666.

He had gone there some years earlier for a family celebration, but did not particularly enjoy the experience. In Pepys’s own words:

“…in the afternoon by coach by invitacon to my uncle Fenner’s, where I found his new wife, a pitiful, old, ugly, illbred woman in a hatt, a midwife. Here were many of his, and as many of her relations, sorry, mean people; and after choosing our gloves, we all went over to the Three Crane Tavern, and though the best room in the house, in such a narrow dogg-hole we were crammed, and I believe we were near forty, that it made me loathe my company and victuals; and a sorry poor dinner it was too.

Sadly, all letter but one of the English alphabet are represented in London street names; until the 1950s all 26 could be found in an index due to East London’s XX Place. It was situated close to Stayners Road and a brewery belonging at one time to the Stayner family.

The inspiration for the name was probably an inn sign depicting a barrel with XX and the initials ISJS and 1823 (from the brewer and date) inscribed on it.

London’s lost streets: brothels, taverns, and Dick Whittington

Following on from yesterday’s post about lost streets and street names of London, another ‘Brothel Row’ that has ceased to exist was Mutton Alley. An old slang term for prostitutes was ‘mutton’, extended also to ‘laced mutton’, and many of the women plied their trade in the alley. John Wilmot, the Earl of Rochester, referred to the term in his unkind epitaph for Charles II:

Here lies our mutton-eating king,
Whose word no man relies on;
He never said a foolish thing,
And never did a wise one.

Laurence Pountney Hill 2 crop

Once known as Green Lettuce Lane

There are also streets still in existence but with names that were changed for, sometimes it would seem, no good reason. One such is Green Lettuce Lane, now called Laurence Pountney Hill.

The lane was nothing to do with salad leaves; the name was, apparently, a corruption of Green Lattice Lane and comes from a lattice gate that opened into what is now Cannon Street. There is (as is so often the case with London streets) a much jollier explanation.

That one holds that, although lattice in its corrupted form does play a part, it was not a gate. In earlier days taverns were designed so that customers could see out without being observed by people going past. This was sometimes achieved with latticework over the window, traditionally painted green or red.

Elbow Lane is another lane renamed, but at least with some semblance of a reason – though it’s not necessarily a change for the better – it is now called, less interestingly, College Street.

In the 16th century it was one street that ran west and then suddenly turned south, according to Stow, and was “therefore of that bending called Elbow Lane”. It later became Great and Little Elbow Lanes and then, in 1839, was renamed College Street to commemorate the college established by Sir Richard Whittington (the Dick Whittington of legend, much of which is inaccurate).

Sir Richard founded the College of St Spirit and St Mary in order, apparently, to 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.

And back to lane, courts, and alleys no longer in existence.

Fan Court was in the heart of what was the meat centre of London. The butchers used to have a scalding house in Pudding Lane, and what was scalded had to be cooled. Fanning was how that was done, and the scalding house became known as Fanners’ Hall, from which the court then took its name.

Flying Horse Court was named from a tavern that was very old in the late 19th century. The flying horse is, naturally, Pegasus, and was used as an heraldic symbol by the Knights Templar who were originally the Knights of the Temple of Solomon of Jerusalem – nine very poor knights who vowed to protect pilgrims travelling to Jerusalem.

By the 12th century they were well established in London. Before long they had been so well showered with gifts that they were rich, powerful, and privileged enough for them to be put in the Tower and have their property confiscated.

Fyefoot Lane was, at least in theory, five feet wide. There was a time when lanes and streets had to fulfil certain minimum width requirements. A lane had only to be wide enough for two men to roll a barrel along it – hence Five Foot, or Fyefoot, Lane.

Streets, on the other hand, decreed Henry I, had to be paved and be wide enough for sixteen knights to ride abreast. (In the 19th century that was changed to seven feet.)

Gunpower Alley was a result of anti-Catholic feelings, which still reigned strong in the 17th century. Charles II had no legitimate children and therefore no heir, so his brother James, a Catholic sympathiser, was in line for the throne.

There were fears that James would re-establish the faith once he became king. Anti-papist meetings were held throughout the country and in Fleet Street there were several demonstrations in which effigies of the pope were burned or blown up. The gunpowder for these festivities was stored in this little courtyard, now gone, off Shoe Lane.

The poet Richard Lovelace, who wrote “four walls do not a prison make, no iron bars a cage”, was a resident of Gunpowder Alley, and died there in abject poverty.


Betrayed and captured in Blood Bowl House

Hanging Sword Alley is a very good name, and both alley and name still exist. 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, once part of the Whitefriars Monastery and still commemorated by Whitefriars Street) was popular with fencing masters and the sign may have referred to this occupation.

However, the alley was once known by the even more sinister name of Blood Bowl Alley, after a 14th century inn there.

Blood Bowl House was an unsavoury and “notorious night-cellar” and is depicted in Plate 9 of Hogarth’s ‘Industry and Idleness’ series. The plate shows Tom Idle, “betray’d by his Whore, & taken in a Night Cellar with his Accomplice” – in Blood Bowl House.

London’s lost street names: cuckolds, elfs, and naked boys

Some of London’s best street names have been changed over the years, partly due to offended sensibilities, but some for no apparent reason – other than, perhaps, political. For example, Of Alley, which is a great name, was changed to York Place. Likewise, some of London’s streets with great names are no more: for example, La Belle Sauvage Yard.

Today, therefore, let’s look at some of the alleys and passageways of London that no longer exist, but should do, if only for their names.

Black Raven Passage, for instance: the name probably comes from the fact that the raven has something of a reputation as a bird of ill omen, the raven in Christian symbolism represents God’s providence – an allusion to the raven that fed Elijah. It was also an old Scottish badge and a Jacobite symbol.

And, of course, the ravens in the Tower of London; superstition has it that: “If the Tower of London ravens are lost or fly away, the Crown will fall and Britain with it.”

This passage which no longer stands, may have been the birthplace of the scandalous Mary Anne Clarke, who was, eventually, the mistress of Frederick, the Grand Old Duke of York. She used her influence with him to obtain money from officers in the army.

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

Cuckold’s Point, at a sharp bend on the Thames in East London, was once marked by a pole, crowned with a set of horns, which delineated the boundary of land granted to a miller who had been cuckolded by King John.

Apparently the miller returned home unexpectedly one day to find his beautiful wife disporting herself with the king and, in order to appease him, King John granted the miller as much land as he could see, and the furthest point he could see was the point that bears the name.

The king also granted the new landowner the privilege of an annual fair – but on the condition that, on the day of the fair, he should walk to the point wearing a pair of buck’s horns on his head..

Elfin Road, back in the 19th century, may have taken its name either from the fact that it was a tiny road dwarfed by its neighbours, or from the prevalence of the plant Elphin-gold moss. While the charmingly named road no longer exists, there is an Elf Row, E1 (not all that far from Cuckolds Point) and an equally charming Elfwine Road in West London.

Naked Boy Court’s came from a sign, which was supposed to have been a comment on the rapidly-changing fashions of the time. The sign painters had so much difficulty keeping up with them that the artist responsible for this one didn’t even try.

The name was later changed to Boy Court; as one acerbic London historian points out, they were too modest in his day to keep the original name. Dressed or naked, Boy Court no longer exists.

Some other names that were overly descriptive,and therefore changed, were things like Dunghill Lane, Gropecontelane, Stew Lane (in modern parlance that would be Brothel Row), and of course, the slightly altered but still extant Passing (formerly Pissing) Alley.

And on that note… more in the next post.

Hatton Garden: diamonds, underworlds, and herbs

Hatton Garden has been much in the news lately following an audacious jewellery raid, so let’s have a look at the name and history of the street, which is named after Sir Christopher Hatton. Hatton was a favourite of Elizabeth I, and was appointed Lord Chancellor.

The queen also formally granted him the Bishop of Ely’s palace in Ely Place, Holborn (much to the Bishop’s dismay and – overruled – protests). The Holborn area of London was an extremely fertile one, abounding with gardens and vineyards, including a herb garden attached to the palace; it was once called Little Saffron Hill.

Gerard's Herball Science Museum London

A 1633 Edition of Gerard’s Herball. Photo: Science Museum London

John Gerard was a skilled herbalist who lived in the area, carefully tended his garden, and in 1596 published a list of all the plants that grew there.

The Herball or Generall Historie of Plants was the first catalogue of any one garden, public or private. (Although some scholars claim that the original book was essentially a translation of a popular earlier Flemish herbal.)

In the late 1930s Little Saffron Hill was renamed Herbal Hill after Gerard’s work.

The gardens of the Bishop of Ely’s palace were also famous for saffron, which was the main source of the spice for the city dwellers. Apart from its colour, it was – like the garlic that gave Garlick Hill its name – useful for disguising meat that may have seen its best.

Saffron was widely used in ancient times, as a dye, a spice, a deodorant, and a healing drug. Romans would put in on their beds on their wedding night, giving rise to the expression ‘dormivit in sacco croci’ (having slept in a bed of saffron), to be light of heart, or enlivened.

Saffron Hill cropFrom light heart to light pockets: Saffron Hill later became an evil slum, and features in Oliver Twist: “in an obscure parlour, of a low public-house, in the filthiest part of Little Saffron Hill…sat, brooding over a little pewter measure and a small glass…Mr William Sikes”.

EAS_3921Nearby is another street – Bleeding Heart Yard – which was highlighted by Charles Dickens, who devoted an entire chapter to it in Little Dorrit. One of the legends behind the name is the story of Lady Elizabeth Hatton, who brings us back to Sir Christopher Hatton.

Hatton himself never married; his nephew, William Newport, inherited his estate, took the Hatton name and died six years later, leaving Elizabeth a widow. The young and beautiful Elizabeth was the toast of 17th-century London society; her Annual Winter Ball in Hatton Garden was one of the highlights of the London social season, and invitations were much sought after.

Cloak LaneThe story goes that she was carried off by the devil one night after her ball; her cloak fell in Cloak Lane, her shoe in Shoe Lane and her heart in Bleeding Heart Yard.

EAS_4009All of which brings us back to Hatton Garden, still the centre of London’s diamond and jewellery trade.

The street sits atop a network of underground works including ancient passageways rumoured to be built by the monks of Ely, abandoned railway platforms, decommissioned bunkers, and the remains of the Fleet river.

Petty France, Jeremy Bentham, and UCL’s amazing auto-icon

HoundsditchThis blog (and the book-in-progress with which it is associated) promises not just the derivations of London’s street names, but also the ‘rest of the story’: stories of the streets themselves, their residents, and famous (or infamous) people associated with them. So today we are going to look at Jeremy Bentham, who willed his skeleton and body to University College London to be be preserved and displayed.

Bentham, reformer anPetty France cropd philosopher, was born in Houndsditch, lived in Crutched Friars, and died in a house in what is now Petty France (another resident of Petty France was John Cleland, author of the 18th-century erotic novel Fanny Hill). He was a strong believer in the equality of women and a proponent of the theory of Classical Utilitarian, believing that moral virtue lay in the greatest good for the greatest number.


However, his strongest London links could be considered those with University College London, an establishment of which he is (wrongly) considered to be a founder. He was held in high esteem by the actual founders, and can be viewed as, according to UCL, its spiritual father.


The auto-icon. Photo: UCL Bentham Project

But on to the amazing auto-icon: Betham willed (shortly before his death) that his body be dissected, and the skeleton preserved to form the basis of an ‘auto-icon’ upon which his mummified head would rest – the whole to be displayed at the University.

The mummification techniques those days were not up to scratch, and the result was not considered suitable for display. A wax head was created for the auto-icon, and Bentham’s own head, supposedly, rested at his feet for some time, later becoming the object of various pranks. Due to the sensitive nature of displaying human remains, the head was removed in 2002 and put into safe storage.


Bentham’s head. Photo: UCL museums

To this day, Bentham sits at the end of the South Cloisters of the UCL campus, where he can be seen 8am-6pm Monday to Friday. Today was a particularly timely day for this particular blog post, as he was removed from his cabinet for inspection, and was available for member of the public to meet him.

For those unable to meet Mr Bentham in the flesh, the university has developed an amazing virtual auto-icon, which can be viewed here.


Haymarket: coal tokens, theatres, and censorship

Haymarket cropHaymarket is one of those singleton, or one-word, street names, like Cheapside, Houndsditch, Piccadilly, Strand, and many others. And – yay! – the name is what it says. From Elizabethan times there was a market for hay on the site, and in 1697 the street was paved, each cartload of hay contributing to the expense.

However, there were merchants other than those dealing in hay: one of the earliest tradesmen in the Haymarket appears to have been a vendor of sea-coal. A token used by him is in the Museum of London; on one side it says: “Nathaniel Robins, at the Seacoale seller, 1666” and on the other, “Hay Markett, in Piccadilla, his half-penny”.

In 1708 Haymarket was described as “a very spacious and public street, in length 340 yards, where is a great market for hay and straw”. In 1720 an enterprising carpenter named John Potter built a small playhouse in the Haymarket. The small playhouse was later called the Hay Market and then the Little Theatre in the Hay. It is now the Theatre Royal Haymarket, the UK’s third oldest playhouse still in use.

According to London historian Edward Walford, “The cost of the building was £1,000, and Potter further expended £500 in decorations, scenery, and dresses. He leased the theatre, immediately after its completion, to a company of French actors, who were at that time much favoured by the English aristocracy.”

In 1729 Henry Fielding started what might today be called a string of hits in the theatre, starting with a burlesque and ending with a political satire that so enraged the prime minister, Robert Walpole, that he introduced what became unprecedented censorship powers that effectively closed the theatre for several years.

In 1807 Haymarket was described as “an excellent street, 1,020 feet in length, of considerable breadth, and remarkably dry, occasioned by the descent from Piccadilly”.

A few years later, the Prince Regent, later King George IV, thought that London was looking tired and old and he instructed John Nash to enhance the appearance of the city. One enhancement included the Little Theatre in the Hay and the Theatre Royal Haymarket opened in 1821 with a production of Sheridan’s ‘The Rivals’.

Where Amazon Street and Hessel Street got their names

I’ve been catching up on my street name signs: many of the streets in the pages of this blog have gone unillustrated because of a lack of my own photos. So, here are two recent additions.

Amazon St cropFirst, Amazon Street, which takes its name from the 18th-century Phoebe Hessel, who was born in the area. She served overseas as a man, having disguised her gender to follow her lover into battle, and was later a local character in Brighton, becoming a favourite of George IV, Price Regent and living to the ripe old age of 108.

The inscription on her gravestone in Brighton reads:

Hessel Stret 5“In Memory of PHOEBE HESSEL who was born at Stepney in the Year 1713. She served for many years as a private soldier in the 5th Regt. of foot in different parts of Europe and in the year 1745 fought under the command of the DUKE of CUMBERLAND at the Battle of Fontenoy where she received a Bayonet wound in her arm. Her long life which commenced in the time of QUEEN ANNE extended to the reign of GEORGE IV by whose munificence she received comfort and support in her latter years. She died at Brighton where she had long resided: December 12th 1821 Aged 108 Years.”

Phoebe also gave her name to nearby Hessel Street.

Stoke Poges, Thomas Gray, and the Cornhill Devils

St Giles church copy

St Giles church, Stoke Poges

Hello, gentle readers, and forgive me for the brief absence from this blog. We were last looking London squares mentioned in University Challenge, and I hope for today you will indulge me in a few moments’ reminiscence. One of the places I have had on my ‘must visit’ list for as longs I can remember is Stoke Poges.

Gray plaque copyWhy, you ask? (Though for some of you it may be obvious.)

Well, one of the very first poems I remember being aware of (after ‘The Goblin Market’ by Christina Rossetti) was Thomas Gray’s ‘Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard’. The very first lines I knew of it were: “Full many a flower is born to blush unseen/And waste its sweetness on the desert air.”

Gray tomb copy

Thomas Gray’s final resting place

That churchyard belongs to the parish church of St Giles, where Gray is buried. In the adjacent field there is a large memorial to Gray. So I got to visit Stoke Poges; see the churchyard; see where Gray is buried; and see a memorial to Gray.

Ok, enough indulgence and reminiscence. But Gray does, of course, have London connections: he was born in Cornhill. As far as I know that’s the only real London connection. We’ve visited Cornhill before, in the pages of this blog, but here’s a recap of some of the facts about that ancient street.

Gray memorial copy

The Thomas Gray memorial

Walter Thornbury, author of the first two volumes of Old and New London, said of it that, “Cornhill, considering its commercial importance, is a street by no means full of old memories.” However, there is lots of interesting ‘stuff’ about the street. First of all, it is (despite the claims of Panyer Alley) the highest point in the City of London.

In fact, one of my favourite tidbits of information about Cornhill involves the church of St Peter’s Cornhill, which stands on that highest point. The church was, for a time, considered to be the oldest church in England and has the only chancel-screen known to have been designed by Christopher Wren.

EAS_4101Facing the church, at 54-55 Cornhill, is a building with three 19th-century gargoyles known as the Cornhill Devils. These are, supposedly, an architect’s revenge on an obstreperous rector.

When the buildings in that area were being designed, the rector of the time discovered that one of the buildings would encroach fractionally on church land. He insisted the plans be redrawn so, forced literally back to the drawing board, and facing no small expense as a result, the architect gave one of the gargoyles the face of the rector.

Apart from Gray, Cornhill has some literary connections: the publishers Smith and Elder had an office there in the 19th century; and two sisters had to appear there in person to prove that they were Anne and Charlotte Bronte rather than Acton and Currer Bell.

And Daniel Defoe had a hosiers shop there; in between his writing he was a trader and one of the goods in which he dealt was hosiery.

London squares and connections to art, religion, and the British Museum

University Challenge was on the other night and I was not quite listening when suddenly I heard Jeremy Paxman say “London squares”. Yay! – there was a round of questions on London squares. I don’t remember the questions in detail (though I did get all the answers, luckily, as I would have been mercilessly mocked had I not), but the three squares involved were Paternoster Square, Mecklenburgh Square, and Sloan Square.

I don’t have much on Mecklenburgh Square; it was named for Charlotte, queen of George III and Victoria Woolf lived there for a time. Oh, yes, George and Charlotte were patrons of Johan Zoffany, who gives his name to Zoffany Street.

Paternoster Square takes its name from Paternoster Row near St Paul’s Cathedral. It is argued by some that, before the Reformation, there was a regular procession of the clergy around the cathedral. This procession involved reciting the Lord’s Prayer in Paternoster Row, the Hail Mary in Ave Maria Lane, the Credo in Creed Lane, and the Amen in Amen Corner.( There are quite a few streets in London with religious (or religious-sounding) names, as you can see here.)

Another, less colourful but possibly more accurate, theory is that Paternoster Row, the oldest of the streets and dating from the 14th century, is where rosary beads (paternosters) were made. The other names may have followed on naturally in the religious context, especially as clerks who copied religious texts lived there.

Sloane Square is named for the physician, naturalist and collector Sir Hans Sloane. Among other achievements, he introduced cocoa to England and bequeathed the 70,000-plus objects in his collection to George II so that his collection would be preserved intact. That collection formed the basis of the British Museum.