Weird London Street Names With A Story Behind Them (Part 1)
Weird London street names can tell you a lot about the history of an area, once you do a bit of digging. Cheapside, for instance, comes from a saxon word ‘chepe’ that meant market. So as the market boulevard you can take a confident stab at what was sold on its connecting streets like Wood Street, Bread Street, Honey Lane and Poultry.
However, things aren’t always that clear cut. Here are my 10 favourite bizarre street names and the story of how they got them.
1. Crutched Friars, EC3
This street takes its name from an Italian Christian order that dates from 1249. Helpfully there’s an addition of a sculpture depicting two said monks, who got their name from the cross-topped wooden staffs they carried as they walked.
2. Bleeding Heart Yard, EC1
A promising looking sign in Clerkenwell, sadly this probably has to be filed in the ‘urban myths’ category, but I’ll tell you the story anyway.
The legend concerns a woman called Lady Elizabeth Hatton, a well-to-do figure in 17th century London. During a Winter Ball in 1626 she danced with the Spanish Ambassador, all fine except he was a jealous type and had previously been rejected by her. Cue next morning when she was found dead in this yard while her heart mysteriously was still pumping her blood.
Sound far-fetched? The story isn’t helped by the fact that Mrs Hatton is recorded to have died 20 year later from natural causes…
This unusual street name has caught the attention of writers too; Dickens fans might also know it features in Little Dorrit.
3. Shoulder of Mutton Alley, E14
Seeming to conform with the Cheapside trend, Shoulder of Mutton Alley seems straightforward, but oddly specific. It relates to a market or pub that was on this site whose speciality seems to have been this particularly cut of sheep. However, mutton was also a slang term for sex workers, so it could have a further meaning that’s now lost in time.
4. Hanging Sword Alley, EC4
The first record of this street comes from a Tudor House on the site as early as 1564. People didn’t have regular street numbers at this time so symbols or icons were hung outside instead and this house had a hanging sword.
The area was popular with fencing schools which is probably why they chose that sign, but by the 17th century it had a rough reputation and was known by the friendly Blood Bowl Alley. It also gets a mention in Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities as the home of Jerry Cruncher, a body-snatcher.
5. Savage Gardens, EC3
Streets can also be misleading. You spot an eerie looking alley with a name like this and your eyes widen at the possibility of gruesome stories…
No such luck I’m afraid, the street is simply named after a Sir Thomas Savage, who owned a house here in the 17th Century.
6. Mincing Lane, EC3
Nothing to do with either ground meat or funny walks, Mincing is in fact derived from an Old English term for a female monk; Mincheon or Minchun. In John Stow’s Survey of London (1598) he recalls the name as Mincheon Lane, because the residents here were Minchuns of St Helen’s Bishopsgate (a church nearby).
7. Cock Lane, EC1
Those who snigger at this Holborn street have a point.
This was the only street in The City of London where sex workers were allowed to live and work. There is some suggestion that perhaps it does also refer to the animal, with Smithfield nearby, however that was more a livestock market. So feel free to chose your favourite version.
8. Trump Street
Nope, nothing to do with you know who.
This street is a stone’s throw from the Guildhall, home of pageantry in The City. The name is simply a corruption of Trumpet and is where the brass instrument makers would live. For more info read the full post about it here.
9. Knightrider Street EC4
This seems to be a ‘call it as you see it’ kind of a name.
Recorded as Knyghtriderstrete in 1322, John Stow states that it was the street knights used when riding from the Tower of London heading to jousting tournaments at Smithfield (before it was a market, the area was known as Smooth Fields).
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10. St Mary Axe, EC3
It’s most famous for being home to The Gherkin, but the street itself – funnily enough – does relate to a Mary and an axe.
There was a church on this site until the 16th century and its full title was a bit of a mouthful; St Mary the Virgin, St Ursula and the Eleven Thousand Virgins. The story of the 11,000 is an old English myth relating to a supposed King of England; King Cole. Cole sent his daughter Ursula to Germany with her entourage, however for an unknown reason Atila the Hun ordered the whole gang to be decapitated with three axes.
So where does Mary come into the story? I’m afraid it’s a bit of a mystery, though of course the Virgin Mary trumps all other saints so it makes sense she’d have top billing. As for the axe, there was supposedly one kept in the church, but equally the word axe might have referred to a shop with the sign of an axe. I’ll leave it for you to ponder.
11. French Ordinary Court, EC3
A tricky street to find, this alleyway is tucked near Fenchurch Street Station.
In the 17th Century, French Huguenots (Protestants fleeing persecution from Catholic France) were allowed to stay here by the French Ambassador. The set up shops selling Coffee and pastries (very French) but also served ordinarys, a term for a fixed price meal.
12. Wardrobe Place, EC4
Ending on a simple one, this street did contain a wardrobe. But not just any wardrobe…
In 1359 King Edward III bought a property here to rehouse the royal walk-in wardrobe from the Tower of London. Though the name lives on today, sadly the wardrobe along with all its finery was destroyed in the Great Fire of London in 1666.
There is also a record of Shakespeare (who had a playhouse as Blackfriars nearby) visting the wardrobe in 1604 to collect 4.5 yards of red cloth so he could attend a royal event in suitably fashionable attire!
Have you spotted any others that got you wondering? Let me know your favourites!
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