What’s in a (street) name?


Many years ago I bought a book by Andrew Duncan about his favourite London Walks, which I recently rediscovered. With our upcoming trip and stop in London it was a good time to pick it up again and immerse myself into the streets of London.

Every city, every town, every village has its history, and that history is reflected in the names of the streets most of us use every day and most often than not, we don’t take note of that history. We are busy getting to work, to school, to the shops and although we know that some streets must have a history behind them, we don’t take the time to discover it.

I love history, and London is probably one of my favourite historical places; every corner of that city oozes history from all the centuries past. Andrew Duncan’s book brought to mind how most street names used to reflect the trades that had set up shop there or commemorated an event or important person. Here are some of my favourite ones.

Birdcage Walk, at the side of Buckingham Palace, is so-called because there used to be royal aviary here in the 17th century for James I.

Rotten Row in Hyde Park is believed to be a corruption of Route du Roi, the royal road built by King William III in the 1660s, leading from Westminster to his new palace at Kensington.

Portobello Road, site of the famous market of the same name, in Notting Hill, whose market started around 1860. The road was originally a farm track leading from the village of Notting Hill Gate to Portobello Farm. The farm was named in honour of the 1739 naval battle when the British defeated the Spanish off Puerto Bello in the Gulf of Mexico.

Flask Walk in Hampstead is named after the old Flask Tavern where spa water was bottled for sale in London Town. Funnily enough, the street is shaped like a bottle, wide at the bottom and narrow at the neck.

Of Alley in Covent Garden now called York Place. In the 1600s York House, a large mansion, stood here and was the house of the Dukes of Buckingham. When the second Duke sold it for redevelopment in the 1670s he insisted that every part of his name and title be used in the naming of the new streets, including the “of” in Duke of Buckingham – hence Of Alley. Shame they have renamed it, I like the idea of Of Alley!

Saffron Hill in Clerkenwell is named so because the Bishops of Ely grew a rich crop of saffron crocuses in their hilltop garden here. Saffron was widely used in the Middle Ages to mask the taste of rancid meat.

Turnagain Lane, also in Clerkenwell, was a cul-de-sac ending at the riverside of the now “lost” Fleet river. When you reached the end you had to “turn again” and go back the way you come. Strangely enough, whilst I was in Anchorage last summer on my Alaskan road trip, I stayed at a small hotel that looked out to Turnagain Arm, which was discovered by James Cook, who thought there was a way through, but found that it ended and he and his crew had to turn around again.

Seething Lane, just around the corner from the Tower of London, once stood near to the Cornmarket and it was probably from this proximity that its name – which is derived from Old English words meaning full of chaff – came. This lane is full of history, Sir Francis Walsingham, the spy master general under Elizabeth I, and the one responsible for entrapping Mary Queen of Scots, had a mansion in this lane. The church at the top of this lane, St. Olave’s, is where Samuel Pepys worshipped and is buried here.

Pudding Lane in the City of London, near London Bridge is famous for the location where the great fire of London in 1666 started. It was during the night of 2nd September 1666 when the king’s baker, Thomas Farriner and his oven’s started this devastating event in London’s history.  Strangely enough though, Pudding Lane is not named after a pudding desert, oh no. Pudding is a medieval word for entrails and organs, which would fall down from the carts which used to come down from the butcher’s in Eastcheap as they headed for the waste barges at the River Thames. Apparently, the original name of this lane was Offal Pudding Lane.

Cherry Garden Pier by the River Thames and just a little ways down from Tower Bridge is named after a resort visited by Samuel Pepys (yes, him again), but is best known for the fact that this is the spot where Turner stood to paint his picture of the warship Temeraire, said painting can be viewed at the National Gallery in London.

Stew Lane, also by the Thames, in medieval times did not advertise beef stew, oh no, it advertised brothels.

Bleeding Heart Yard in Farringdon is a cobbled courtyard said to be named after a sign that used to hang on a pub in the 16th century. The sign showed the heart of the Virgin Mary pierced by five swords. This yard also features in Charles Dickens novel “Little Dorrit”.

Bread Street in the City was the site of a bread market started in 1302 as the bakers of London were ordered to sell no bread from their houses but in the open market at Bread Street.

Three Cranes Lane,  a small lane just by the Thames is named after the wooden cranes that used to stand there to lift wine from the ships that docked there. Initially only one large crane was on site, as reported in reports dated 1752, but two further cranes were built within the next 30 years. The lane also had a popular pub of the same name, the pub sign displaying the feathered crane types.

Friday Street, near St. Paul’s Cathedral was probably the market where medieval fishmongers sold their wares on Fridays, when meat was forbidden to Catholic England.

There are many more interesting street names with some great history behind them, and hopefully we will discover some of them on our trip this year.

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Categories: British History | Tags: , , , | 13 Comments

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13 thoughts on “What’s in a (street) name?

  1. This is just splendid: great composition and the light is magical.

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  2. I enjoyed reading about the street names, some very interesting facts and amusing bits of trivia, but your photo is quite stunning.

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    • Thank you Jack, much appreciated. As it happens, that photo was taken some years ago before I owned a DSLR. Goes to show that good photos can be taken with a pocket camera.

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  3. Very interesting, but I don’t think Bill III was still around in the 1960s… although what people were taking in London back then may have made them think he was. I like London too, but just for visiting. I would not want to live there.

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    • Ah you spotted my deliberate mistake Ivor (that’s my story and I shall stick with it lol) – now fixed. Like you, I enjoy the visits and could not imagine living there, way too crowded for my liking.

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  4. p.s. good shot of the London Eye too… did you go on it?

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    • Thanks Ivor – no we didn’t and not sure we will this time around. Our teenager sees it as 45 minutes of time wasted and to be honest, you can get some great views from less expensive places in town.

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  5. Tammy

    I always look forward to your posts…always learn something new (and you usually give me a bit of a chuckle)! I love this shot…makes me wish I were there on the very top of the wheel!

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  6. Great shot of the wheel and very interesting facts about the naming of streets in London.

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  7. Pingback: The peculiarity of royalty | My Journey

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