Not London street names: palings, slaughters, and chipping

Pale Lane: I saw that sign on the way out of Birmingham today, and I thought I’d stray away from London street names for a moment to look at some other quirky names.

I presume that ‘pale’ in this instance is nothing to do with light and dark, but to do with the obsolete use of the word as a post, as in paling, or to impale Dracula with a wooden stake. The expression ‘beyond the pale’ derives from the fact that often fences (made with pales) would enclose a house or neighbourhood, so anything beyond that was a potential danger.

Before the trip to Birmingham, I had my brother and sister-in-law over from Australia and we did a fair amount of sightseeing together. During a day out in the Cotswolds we saw signs for Upper and Lower Slaughter and naturally that gave rise to some discussion. Was it likely that those villages were the site of some massacre? I hated to be a wet blanket, but I said I was pretty sure not.

Indeed, ‘slaughter’ in this case comes from slohtre, which is an Old English term for a muddy place. Something that resonated with the Australian visitors, as it rained nearly the entire time they were here so most places they saw had been pretty muddy.

There are many compilations of naughty place names, many of which include the word ‘bottom’, but we want to be a bit more intellectual than that. So what about two of the place names that most delighted me when I first came to the UK: Stoke Poges (stockaded place) and Ashby-de-la-Zouche (ash tree farm belonging to the La Zouch family). I’ve visited one, and it was charming, and drove through the other, which was not.

I’ve also been to Christmas Common in Oxfordshire; apparently the origin of that name is unclear. It could either be because holly trees were grown there; because there was a Christmas family with local connections, or because of a 1643 Christmas Day truce during the English Civil War.

In Devon, apart from Westward Ho! you can find Ottery St Mary and Rattery, presumably not necessarily where pet otters and rats are boarded. Rattery may be a variant of ‘red tree’ and Ottery St Mary is from a church on the river Otter. Westward Ho! takes its name from Charles Kingsley’s novel.

But I guess I can’t really write a whole post without mentioning London at some point, so how about all the place names that include ‘Chipping’? Chipping Camden, Chipping Norton, and Chipping Sodbury, for instance. It is likely, or at least possible, that the word derives from the Old English word meaning ‘market’ – as does Cheapside.

London’s bird-related street names, from Cock Lane to Wild Goose Drive

Birdcage WalkI was driving in the lovely Forest of Dean area today, and I saw signs for a Sparrow Dive and Lark Rise (to Cinderford, maybe?), which seemed rather fitting, given yesterday’s Wren-related post. Guess what? That made me think of bird-themed London streets and, oh, yes, there are many.

(Incidentally, the name Wren does come from the bird: according to the surname database, many early English surnames derived from nicknames bestowed because of a perceived resemblance to various creatures. “The nickname ‘Wren’, derived from the Olde English pre 7th Century word ‘wrenna’ or ‘wraenna’, in Middle English ‘wrenne’, was probably used of a small, busy and quick-moving person.” )

Cock HillTo start with, we have Bird in Bush Road, Bird in Hand Court, Bird Street, and Birdcage Walk. Bird Street takes its name from Thomas Bird, who built the street in 1763, while Bird in Bush Road comes from a local field name, and Bird in Hand is from an old inn sign.

Birdcage Walk near Buckingham Palace is the site of an aviary started by James I and enlarged by Charles II (though some sources give Charles the credit for establishing it). It was also the site of a royal cockpit used for the grisly purposes of cock fighting.

Cockspur Street signThis deplorable ‘sport’ also gave us Cock Lane and Cockspur Street. Cock Lane probably took its name from the fact that it was the site of a breeding ground for fighting cocks. Far more interesting, however, are the facts that it also housed a famous (but fraudulent) ghost, it was where the Great Fire of London halted, and it was, in the Middle Ages, the only place where the City’s prostitutes could live.

Cockspur Street is so named because the spurs with which the birds were equipped to ensure even greater flow of blood were made and sold there. Cock Hill may have taken tis name from some connection with cock fighting, but it has a big state of a ram, so who knows? It is, however, part of the Middlesex Street Conservation Area. Middlesex Street being, of course, Petticoat Lane.

EAS_4114From cocks to hens and chickens, which takes us to Hen and Chicken Court off Fleet Street, named after a tavern called the Hen and Chicken. Hen and chicken were terms for pewter pots used to hold alcohol; they were also symbolic in Christian art of God’s providence, and therefore made a useful image for signs.

A particularly delightful bird street name is Wild Goose Drive (connected to Swallow Close). Although the term ‘wild goose chase’ now means a fruitless or absurd mission, it originally implied an erratic course. The drive is indeed, not straight, which may have suggested the name.

EAS_3977Some of the many other bird street names are Cygnet Street, Dove House Gardens, Dove Road, Drake Street, Duck Lane, Eaglet Place, Emu Road, Falcon Lane, Finch Lane, Goose Yard, Heron Road, Ibis Lane, Lark Row, Magpie Alley, Mallard Way, Nightingale Avenue, Partridge Green, Peacock Street, Pigeon Lane, and Raven Row.

(I could squeeze Chicksand Street and Heneage into this category, which is cheating even by my standards but there is a bird connection and we’ll look at that another time.)

London’s Wren-connected streets: from Wren Street to Pineapple Court

As today is Sir Christopher Wren’s birthday, let’s take a look at some of the London streets with a connection, obvious or not so obvious, to him. First, speaking of obvious connections, as @oldmapman pointed out, there is a Wren Street in Bloomsbury, so named because Wren once lived there.

St Mary at Hill takes its name from the church there, which dates back to at least the 12th century and was called ‘on the hill’ because of the steep ascent from the Thames. It was damaged in the Great Fire of 1666, and was rebuilt by Wren.

Not a street, but a building: the Royal Hospital, now home to the Chelsea Pensioners, was built by Wren. For many years, there was a rumour that Nell Gwynn had beseeched Charles to build the hospital after she heard had been moved by the story of an injured soldier. Once the hospital had been built, old soldiers there would toast Nell as their benefactress.

Lamb’s Conduit Street involves a conduit provided for the residents of the area by 16th-century William Lambe, “a rich citizen and clothworker”. He spent a vast sum of his own money to have several springs connected to form a head of water, which was then conveyed by a lead pipe around 2,000 yards long to Snow Hill where a derelict conduit was rebuilt. The conduit was damaged in the Great Fire of London and rebuilt the following year from a design by Sir Christopher Wren.

Czar Street in Deptford was named for Peter the Great, Czar of Russia, who lodged here at the end of the 17th century, a tenant (by means of various sublets) of the diarist John Evelyn, who had moved to Deptford to escape the rebuilding of London after the Great Fire. The Czar did not treat the house or garden in a seemly manner and Evelyn later wrote of his  “now ruined garden, thanks to the Czar of Moscovy”. The government later agreed to compensate him and Christopher Wren, along with the King’s gardener, was assigned the job of assessing the situation and supervising those repairs that were possible.

The church of St Peter’s Cornhill 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. The church is possibly more famous for its view of 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.

Queen Victoria Street (named for Queen Victoria), which runs from Cheapside to Victoria Embankment (also named for the queen) and is roughly parallel to the Thames, was originally part of 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.

The parish church of St James Garlickhythe was yet another building destroyed in the Great Fire and then rebuilt by Wren. The church is home to Jimmy Garlick, an almost perfectly mummified corpse, discovered in 1839 when workmen were closing up the old vaults. It is possible that he is (or, rather, was) either Richard Rothing, who built the original church, or one of the six early Lord Mayors of London who were buried there.

From the obvious connection of Wren Street to the tenuous link (yes, I had to get one of those in) of Pineapple Court, which took its name from the fruit, which was introduced to England in the 17th century;. Like the artichoke, its shape and novelty made it popular on signs, especially those of confectioners. Christopher Wren was said to be so taken with the shape that he adopted it in the decorations of all his buildings (though many of them resemble acorns more than pineapples).

London’s clothing streets: from Boot Street to Whalebone Court

Buckle Street2Before Boot Street (alphabetically speaking) there are various Ascot Houses, Courts, and Lodges, but they are all buildings rather than streets. So let’s move along alphabetically to Boot Street near Old Street station in Islington.

One thing I have learned about this street is that it was used as a location for the filming of The Crying Game: the exterior of the Metro Pub, where Dil sings the title song, was an empty property behind a pub on the corner with Coronet Street.

Buckle Street, in East London (not far from Amazon Street, Batty Street and Coke Street) may, like Bucklersbury, take its name from the Bukerel (or Buckerell or Bucherel) family who were London property owners in the 12th century. The family had a fortified mansion, or bury, on the banks of the Walbrook – one of London’s now subterranean rivers, which gave its name to a ward and to the street that still bears its name.

(By the 13th century it was less than salubrious as it had to keep being cleared of dung.) Stow refers to “a manor and tenements pertaining to one Buckle, who dwelt there, and kept his courts”.

Cloak LaneSpeaking of the Walbrook and dung, that takes us to Cloak Lane, which has featured a few times in this blog and is also included in the ‘scatalogical London’ category. Fittingly, it once led over the Walbrook, when it was called Horseshoe Bridge. The current name first appears in the late 17th century and is likely to have derived from the Latin ‘cloaca’, or sewer.
Clothier Street cropA more glamorous, though unlikely in the extreme, explanation is that it refers to the cloak dropped by Lady Elizabeth Hatton as she was carried away from a party by Old Nick from Bleeding Heart Yard. Similarly, Shoe Lane is supposed to be where she dropped her shoe; again, this is – alas – unlikely. More likely is the theory that an early reference to it as ‘Scholanda’ (Show-land) means that the lane was once a place for the setting out and showing of water-borne merchandise to tax collectors and customers.

Other explanations are that Scholanda could also have meant ‘land shaped like a shoe’ and that the lane led to such a piece of land. Alternatively, it could have taken its name from an ancient well –
Showelle – at the north end of the lane.

Give me Lady Elizabeth any time.

Next, we have Cloth Court, Cloth Fair, and Cloth Street, all of which presumably get their name in the same way. From the 12th century to the 19th century a three-day fair – Bartholomew Fair – was held in the Smithfield area; money charged on tolls for goods was a source of income for the priory of St Bartholomew.

The fair was, early on, essentEAS_4009ially a trade fair for the woollen and drapery industries, with Italian and Flemish cloth merchants, though it later became a rowdy free-for-all. By the early 19th century, pickpockets and brawlers dominated, and the fair was discontinued in 1855.

Incidentally, 41 Cloth Fair, built between 1597 and 1614, is one of the only houses in the City to have escaped the flames and lays claim to being the oldest London house in existence.

From cloth to clothiers: Clothier Street (also known once as Crab Court and Carter Street), near Houndsditch has a connection to the rag trade that goes back to Elizabethan times when it was famous as a gathering area for “sellers of old apparel”. An official Clothes Exchange was established there in 1875 and the current name was assigned in 1906.

Petticoat Lane viewNot far away is Middlesex Street, otherwise known as Petticoat Lane. The earlier, 17th-century, name could be from 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.

Henry Mayhew, a 19th-century social researcher, journalist, and playwright, said of the lane that to look down it was “to look down a vista of many-coloured garments”. Less poetically, FH Habben, a contemporary of Mayhew, and a somewhat curmudgeonly scholar of London’s streets, stated firmly that the name was “The English form, I presume, of petit court, the little short lane.”

Fashion Street is nothing to do with fashion but takes its name from the Fasson brothers, Thomas and Lewis, who owned the land upon which the street was built in the 1650s. On second thought, there is also a clothing connection of sorts: Thomas was a skinner.

Hanger Lane in West London was called Hanger Hill in 1710; it was the site of a wood called ‘le Hangrewood’ in the 14th century. The word comes from the Old English ‘hangra’, meaning a wooded hill with clinging steep slopes.

Hat & Mitre Court, little more than a slight gap between buildings, doubles up on the headgear theme, as ‘mitre’ is an ecclesiastical hat of sorts. The second half of the name comes from an 18th-century tavern called the Mitre, a common tavern name, especially in areas, such as this (the priory of St John was nearby), with a large ecclesiastical population.

Why hat as well is not clear , though it was also common in signs, both for hatters’ shops and for taverns. Possibly a new landlord of the Mitre once had a tavern called the Hat and was reluctant to give up the name and possibly lose customers. Combining the names of two taverns was a ruse often employed for landlords to get the best of both worlds as far as customers went.

From head to foot with Hosier Lane, which is exactly as it sounds. In the 14th century the hosiers lived and worked here, making their age’s equivalent of today’s trousers: fashionable garments that replaced the robes of previous generations. These hose were brightly dyed, often with legs in contrasting colours.

The houses in the lane were, at one time, nearly all built of timber, probably dating back to the 17th century. There was a barber’s shop on the corner, in which was displayed a dagger said to be the one with which Walworth killed Wat Tyler, virtually on that spot.

Keeping up with the clothes theme, in the 18th century, the lane was a resort spot during the time of Bartholomew Fair, when “all the houses were made public for tippling”.

Sadly, Naked Boy Court no longer exists, but takes its name from a sign that was supposed to have been a comment on the rapidly-changing fashions of the time. Apparently the sign painters had so much difficulty keeping up with them that the artist responsible for this one didn’t even try.

Silk Street apparently comes from the silk weaving carried on in 17th-century London largely by French refugees who settled in the Spitalfields area. By the 19th century they had been joined by their English counterparts from the north, who set up silk factories. Many of them lived in this street, which was finally named in recognition of that fact.

Skinners LaneSkin Market Place behind the Globe Theatre takes its names from London’s (legal) skin trade: “the skins from nearly all the sleep slaughtered in London” were sold in the market here. Skinners Lane on the other side of the Thames, was known as Maiden Lane and renamed for much the same reason, except that the skins in this case were furs.

There is also a Skinner Street; although one theory is that in the early 19th century an Alderman Skinner was the driving force behind building the street, it is more likely that it is named because in 1630 eight acres of land were bequeathed to the Worshipful Company of Skinners by John Meredith.

Wardrobe Terrace cropWardrobe Place and Wardrobe Terrace take their name from a house that belonging to Sir John Beauchamp was purchased in 1359 by Edward II for use as the storeroom for the royal clothing worn on state occasions. In Shakespeare’s will he bequeathed, to his daughter, land near the Wardrobe.

Weaver Street, like Silk Street, is named for the weaving industry that became prevalent in this area, especially after the 19th century. There is also a Weavers Lane, on the south bank of the Thames, probably so named for the same reason.

Whalebone CourtFinally, Whalebone Court, according to an 18th-century source, was so called because whalebone was boiled there, presumably in preparation for it being made into corsets.

Update to Seven Stars Yard in London’s number streets: from Four Dials to Twelvetrees Crescent

In commenting on the fact that Seven Stars was a common name for taverns, usually referring to a plough or the Big Dipper constellation, I made reference to the Seven Stars pub in Holborn.

I’ve been informed by one of a reader, fellow tweeter @dgbdgb from Footprints of London, that “Seven Stars pub in Carey Street in Holborn is supposedly linked to the Seven Provinces of the United Provinces now the Netherlands.”

A little more digging and I found this on CAMRA’s pub guide website:

“Formerly known as the League of Seven Stars after the seven provinces of the Netherlands; amongst its first customers were Dutch sailors who had settled in the area. Shakespeare performances took place nearby in Middle Temple and the playwright himself may even have drunk here. Later on, the novelist Charles Dickens is thought to have used the pub as a model for The Magpie & Stump featured in Pickwick Papers.”

Of course, there is a modern day, real-life Magpie & Stump, from which people would watch the public executions at Newgate.

So, once again, I’ve been taught not to take anything for granted when it comes to London street names.

London’s number streets: from Four Dials to Twelvetrees Crescent

We left off our numbers post from one to three with quite a few ‘three’ streets, but the other numbers are not as much in evidence. And I regret to say that of many of the ones I have found, the name is the only piece of information I have.

Four Seasons Close in Tower Hamlets, for instance, near the Blackwall Tunnel, is near Redwood Close and Primrose Close, so maybe there is some kind of tenuous horticultural connection.

There is a small lane called Five Acre in north west London, which leads off Lanacre Avenue and is near a North Acre and South Acre. ‘Acre’ in names often designates a street near to, for instance, a farm with ‘acre’ in its name. Presumably that bears some relation to both this name and to Forty Acre Lane in Canning Town.

Fives Court in Southwark is, apparently, a relatively new name, the derivation of which is still a mystery. Unless it’s something to do with ‘fives’ –a handball game that is played on a court.

Also a bit of a mystery is Five Bell Alley, which leads off Three Colt Street, a fairly major road in the Limehouse Area (and near to the alarmingly named Grenade Street). Presumably it takes its name from a tavern, Five Bells being not uncommon in pub names in nautical terms it means 2:30pm – once pub closing time.

There are quite a few ‘sevens’ in London: Seven Dials, Seven Sea Gardens, Seven Sisters Road, and Seven Stars Yard. Seven Sea Gardens in east London is part of a residential complex on Caspian Wharf, so presumably that accounts for the maritime name. Seven Stars was also a popular tavern name, usually represented either by a plough or by the Plough (or Big Dipper) constellation, which consists of seven stars. There is a Seven Stars pub in Holborn, which is one of the pubs purporting to be London’s oldest.

Seven Dials, which has been covered before in this blog, was an early exercise in town planning (and possibly getting it wrong). In the 17th century the Master of the Royal Mint, Sir Thomas Neale, planned seven streets radiating from a central point where there was a column with a sun dial on each face. However, the column had only six faces.

Some say the seventh ‘dial’ comes from the column itself; others that the column was commissioned before a change of plan meant there were seven streets instead of six.

Seven Sisters Road and Nine Elms Lane, have been covered in the earlier tree-themed post. Seven Sisters Road south of Finsbury Park takes its name from a tavern called the Seven Sisters. The tavern, in turn, commemorated the fact that, in front of it, stood a circle of elm trees with a walnut tree in the centre. The trees, removed in the 1840s, were supposed to have dated back to around the 14th century, planted on the spot where a martyr had been burned.

Nine Elms Lane, now a major road rather than a lane, runs on the south bank of the Thames and past the New Covent Garden market. It was, however once a country lane that did run past nine elm trees.

Twelvetrees Crescent in Bow is hardly a crescent – being, as it is, a fairly large road that spans the River Lea, but perhaps it was once in a rural area with lots of trees.

Update on London’s number streets from One Tree Hill to Three Mill Lane

In yesterday’s post I airily dismissed the streets from First to Sixth Avenue in what is known as Queen’s Park Estate in West London. My reasoning was that there wasn’t an interesting story behind those names.

Well, I stand corrected. As reader, fellow blogger and London expert has pointed out: “The ‘Avenues’ as the Queen’s Park estate is known locally, were once provided as dwellings for workers by the Shaftesbury Estate, who have an almost identical development in Battersea. A feature of both areas is that there are no pubs, so as to discourage drunkenness.”

The company behind this laudable, and teetotal, vision of housing was the Artizan’s, Labourers’ and General Dwellings Company, founded in 1867 by an illiterate ex-labourer called William Austin, who began his career as a penny-a-day bird-scarer, gave up drink at the age of 47, and turned to philanthropy instead of alcohol. The company was supported by the philanthropist Lord Shaftesbury, who was also a keen temperance enthusiast and reformer.

The company started with the Shaftesbury Park Estate, just north of Lavender Hill, the first stone of which was laid by Lord Shaftesbury in 1872. The estate was formally opened n 1874 by Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli, who remarked, “Stronger than my sympathy is my surprise at what you have done. I have never in my life been more astonished.”

The Queen’s Park Estate was the next such estate to be built by the company; it was built in a grid design with the north-south streets called First, Second, Third, Fourth, Fifth and Sixth Avenues.

So there you have it: a story behind even the most mundane sounding of street names.

(A sad, and yet strangely humorous, aside to the company’s history is that the Queens Park Estate project suffered serious mismanagement and fraud and was forced to raise its rents. In 1877 three people were found guilty of defrauding the company of close to £10,000. One of those people was the appropriately named company secretary, William Swindlehurst.)

Incidentally, Lord Shaftesbury is the same philanthropist who helped to establish the Ragged Schools to provide free education; the building of one of these schools still stands in Mayfair’s Grotto Passage.

London’s number streets: One Tree Hill to Three Mill Lane


Once known as Three Needle Street

Hello, gentle reader(s), I’m back! Apologies for the long gap in posts, and thank you for bearing with me.

I was looking at a recent post, the one on trees, and a couple of things occurred to me. First, there are a couple of gaps, about which I have spoken to myself severely. Second, it occurred to me that there are a few numbers there so – yes, you guessed it! – I rushed to see what ‘number’ streets I have. There are quite a few, but I have information on only a few of them, and photos of even fewer, but here’s what I’ve been able to find out. (Incidentally, in the W10 area there are streets from First to Sixth Avenue but I will ignore them.)

In numerical order, we start with the already-covered One Tree Hill, which was once called Five Tree Hill. The one tree was Honor Oak, which took its name from the fact that it marked a boundary of the ‘Honor of Gloucester’ – land belonging to the 12th-century earls of Gloucester.

We then jump to three, of which there are many, including Three Colts Lane. The ‘three’ in streets names generally means a tavern sign, common in part because it occurs often in heraldry, and in part because it is traditionally a lucky number.

In the 19th century, this lane, which takes its name from an inn sign, was part of the then crime-ridden and filthy Bethnal Green area. It is mentioned in Hector Gavin’s 19th-century Sanitary Ramblings: Being Sketches and Illustrations of Bethnal Green in very unfavourable terms: “that part of Three Colts Lane which is without a sewer is very dirty,” he noted with distaste, “and the gutters full of dirt and fluid filth”.

(There is also a Three Colt Street, off of which leads a small passage called Five Bell Alley.)

Three Cranes Lane no longer exists, but that took its name from a 16th-century inn, the sign of which depicted birds rather than, as was more common, the cranes that were used to hoist casks of wine. The name has been reinstated as part of the City of London’s ‘Riverside Walk Enhancement Strategy’, and can be found close to Three Barrels Walk and Three Quays Walk. The name of Three Quays dates back to the 17th century, when exotic imports from the West Indies were unloaded at three separate quays.

Three Kings Yard in Mayfair takes its name from a tavern that stood at the entrance of the yard until 1879. There was also once a Three Kings Court; the tavern for which that was named was destroyed in the Great Fire. The kings on this inn sign usually depicted the three Magi – Balthazar, Caspar, and Melchior.

Three Tuns Court, demolished in the 19th century, came from a short-lived tavern, recorded in 1845 and demolished soon after. The tun, a large cask for holding two hundred and fifty-two gallons of wine, was a natural choice for a tavern sign. Three of them come into the picture because they appeared on the arms of the Vintners’ Company and of the Brewers’ Company.

There was once also a court called Three Nuns Court, named after a 14th-century brewery called the ‘Thre Nones’, presumed to be a corruption of Three Tuns. Three Nun Court, which may or may not be the same one, can be found just off Aldermanbury.

Three Cups Yard also takes its name from a tavern, which was a popular name; there were quite a few of them in London over the years.

Taking in both pubs and trees (and filling one of those gaps in the tree post): Three Oak Lane, like One Tree Hill, is a logical street names: three oaks once stood here, and there was a Three Oaks inn recorded in 1761.

Three Mill Lane also makes sense: this lane in Stratford takes its name from the fact that its proximity to the River Lea made it a good place for water mills. There were three of them here dating back to the early 14th century. The river itself, which flows from the Chilterns and joins the Thames, was once used to define the border between the Danes and the English. (Also in Stratford is Four Dials.)

Before we leave the number three, we should mention Threadneedle Street, which was once called Three Needle Street, from the arms of the Needle Makers Company.

More number streets in a future post.

*UPDATE* on London’s shape-related street names

Within minutes of the post below going live, I had a comment from @andrew_clegg: “Don’t forget Polygon Road near Euston, which is… completely straight,” he said.

I can’t, with thanks to Lewis Carroll, forget what I didn’t know, but once I heard of Polygon Road, I had to look it up. And Peter Watts of the Time Travel Explorer blog came to my rescue with masses of great information. He puts it so nicely I will just quote part of this fascinating blog post:

The Polygon, he says, “was a housing estate, a Georgian building with 15 sides and three storeys that contained 32 houses. It was demolished in the 1890s, by which time Somers Town had become a cheap and run-down neighbourhood, almost entirely because of its location. Railways were loud and smelly places, and they depended upon cheap labour – and that combination was a killer for an area’s aspirations.

“Two of the most famous residents of the Polygon were William Godwin and his wife Mary Wollstonecraft, who died giving birth to Mary Shelley, the author of Frankenstein. Another former Polygoner was Charles Dickens, who lived at No 17 in the 1820s shortly after his father, John Dickens, was released from debtors prison. Dickens later made the Polygon a home for his ‘Bleak House’ character Harold Skimpole, and he in turn may well have been modelled on Godwin.”

Thank you very much, Messrs Clegg and Watts.

London’s shape streets: from Acre Lane to Kensington Gore

Recently I did a ‘size matters’ theme of London street names – more length than size, actually, which included Long Acre. As I sat here today mentally chaining myself to my computer (I will get this licked into shape so it is a publishable book) I thought, ‘what about Acre Lane?’ And are there other area-related streets, I wondered. There are certainly many shape-related streets, of which this is one.

The derivation of the name is uncertain but it could have indicated the size or shape of a particular plot of land upon which the lane now stands.

In any case, it is also one of the many streets of London with a gruesome past.

On 9 May 1923, near the junction of Acre Lane and Baytree Road, Jacob Dickey, a taxi driver, was attacked in his cab and shot fatally. The murderer escaped by leaping over a fence leading to the back gardens of the Acre Lane houses and forcing his way through one of those houses into the street. An unusual walking stick left by the body eventually led police to an Alexander Mason, though evidence against him was less than watertight.

Another death associated with the lane is that of William Jones; his late wife’s niece Elizabeth Vickers lived with him as a housekeeper. Vickers was apparently prone to drink and to beating Jones, who eventually died from one such attack. A bequest of £1,000 in the old man’s will was considered to be a sufficient motive for murder, but at trial Vickers was found not guilty.

(Incidentally, I overlooked Baytree Road in the post on tree-related street names. It takes its name from a house that was called Baytrees, presumably because there were some.)

Streets that take their name from size or shape include (apart from Long Acre and Acre Lane) Bow Street, Diamond Street, and Turnagain Lane, to mention but a few. These have all been covered elsewhere in this blog, but in brief:

Bow Street was built in 1637 and given its name because it looked like a bent bow. (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.)

Diamond Street could take its name from the fact that it forms one side of a small ‘square’ that could be considered roughly diamond-shaped.

Turnagain Lane was once called ‘Windagain Lane’ according to that font of knowledge John Stow, because “it goeth down west to Fleet dike, from whence men must turn again the same way they came, for there it stopped”.

There was also once an Elbow Lane which, like Turnagain Lane, was a street that ran west and then suddenly turned south and, according to Stow, was “therefore of that bending called Elbow Lane”.

I know I joke about tenuous links but even I would go so far as to include names that are [Something] Cresent, [Something] Square or [Something] Circle, but there is a Triangle Place not that far from Acre Lane.

Triangles take us to Kensington Gore and Gore Street. The word ‘gore’ in this case is innocent of anything gruesome. It comes from the Old English word ‘gara’, which was a triangular piece of land left after irregularly shaped fields had been ploughed.

Happily, there is blood involved, albeit indirectly, in a name crying out for it: a retired British pharmacist, John Tinegate, used to make fake blood for the stage and screen and it was trademarked Kensington Gore. The term has now become a generic term for fake blood.

And, finally, there is The Square in Hammersmith (which is in the shape of a square) and Pentagram Yard in Bayswater, but I have no idea where that name came from.