Walking along London’s streets today, often in a rush to get from A to B, little thought is usually given to how these arteries of our fascinating city came by their names.
Here is an insight into just a few of the better-known streets that many of us will have strolled along, whose names often date back centuries.
Seething Lane – The City of London
Seething Lane is a narrow street in the City of London. The street is located in the southeast of the city in the Tower Ward. The narrow road takes its name from the grain that was once threshed in the street and came through the nearby city gate from the Tower Hamlets to London. Seething is an Old English word for chaff.
Seething Lane is one of the few streets in the city that was not affected by the Great Fire of London. Seething Lane housed the homes of many London dignitaries. Famed diarist Samuel Pepys lived in Seething Lane.
Horseferry Road – Westminster
This busy thoroughfare takes its name from the onetime ferry which once spanned the River Thames at which Lambeth Bridge is now located. The ferry was owned by the Archbishop of Canterbury and was a vital river crossing at a time when there were few bridges across the Thames. As the name implies, horses and their riders were transported across the river from Westminster to Lambeth Palace on the river’s south bank. Early references to the ferry appear as early as 1513. It is thought that Princess Augusta; mother to George III, used the crossing en route to her wedding.
Thorney Street – Westminster
This quiet street in central London is perhaps the one remaining indicator of a nearby islet that once stood in the Thames, which the reader would better recognise today as Westminster Abbey and The Palace of Westminster, better known still as The Houses of Parliament. The small island was formed from a Thames tributary, The River Tyburn; which today is a subterranean feature incorporated into London’s sewers. Rising land levels, the building over of the tributaries and the construction of the Thames Embankments, have all contributed to the disappearance of Thorney Island.
Oxford Street – Westminster
This world famous shopping street once followed a Roman Road linking Hampshire to Colchester and was a major thoroughfare to and from the city. Previously named Tyburn Road after the river that ran to its south and Uxbridge Road; a name still retained by the London to Oxford section between Shepherd’s Bush and Uxbridge, Oxford Street has a grisly past, transporting prisoners from Newgate Prison to their place of execution at Tyburn, close to modern-day Marble Arch. It was renamed Oxford Street in the eighteenth century, when it and the nearby fields were purchased by the Earl of Oxford.
Pudding Lane – City of London
Chiefly known as the location of Thomas Farriner’s bakery, in which began The Great Fire of London in 1666, this street; which is but a stone’s throw from London Bridge, is thought to derive its name from the offal that once passed regularly through it on its way to the Thames waste barges, pudding then being the given name for animal innards. It is said that the offal would often fall from the carts on its journey from the Eastcheap Butcher shops.
Fetter Lane – City of London
To the North of Fleet Street, in medieval times this lane was said to be a place where vagabonds would gather, feigning illness to elicit sympathy from passers-by and in turn a few coins. It is believed that the word fetter comes from the word faitour which meant false beggars. The lane was also earlier documented as Feuteer-lane, meaning a keeper of dogs and Fewtor or Faitourn, which described a fellow of little worth.
Cheapside – City of London
Said to be one of London’s oldest streets and the original high street, Cheap refers to a marketplace. Dating back to mediaeval times, many of its side streets take their name from the produce they once sold to the market, such as: Bread Street, Milk Street, Wood Street and Honey Lane. This thoroughfare was documented as early as 1066, then referred to as West Ceape; Ceape signifying the ole English for a bargain, much as one would still hope to find in any modern-day market.
Cloak Lane – City of London
Running between Queen Street and Dowgate Hill, this City street is thought to take its name from the Italian word cloaca, meaning sewer. This is because it is said that in times past it had a sewer running along its length into Walbrook, now another of London’s subterranean rivers.
Fleet Street – City of London
Best known for being the centre of national newspaper journalism and printing in the UK, Fleet Street was named after the River Fleet that still flows under the streets of London. Prior to the journalists moving in, the river was vital for Londoners as a place to do business.
In the time of the Romans the Fleet was a major river which mills, butchers, tanners, brewers and ordinary people would rely on for water supply.
Chancery Lane – City of London
This famous London Lane came to be following good old Henry III’s closure of the City’s law schools. Apprentices required a place in which to carry out their apprentices and they settled in what was initially called New Street and these institutions were known as the Inns of Chancery. Although following the English Civil War these inns no longer had any purpose, the name stuck.
Bleeding Heart Yard
Two trains of thought prevail here. The first is that relating to one Lady Elizabeth Hatton, who was said to have been viciously murdered in Farringdon in 1626. Legend tells us that her body was discovered here, having had the heart ripped from it, yet still beating close by.
However, rather less dramatic; and some would say far more believable, is that the Yard simply takes its name from an inn once located there.
This lane running south of King William Street, originally went by a somewhat less appealing name. Once known as Shiteburne Lane (yes, that’s what I said!), it is believed that the thoroughfare was used as a public toilet for the masses.
Situated in London’s East End, Houndsditch is thought to be the medieval burial ground for deceased dogs of the day. In addition to general rubbish, departed pooches were unceremoniously dumped here. An irony though is that in 1748 Jeremy Bentham, a social reformer of the time and an early example of an animal rights campaigner, was born here.
This modern-day North London street really is rather pleasant but its name is a sarcastic referral to the dumping ground that existed here during in the medieval period and stems from this time. Prior to the covering over of the greatly polluted River Fleet of Clarkenwell, ashes and household waste were deposited in mounds along its banks. Hence the referral to a Mount. Although the irony may now be long lost, the street remains as Mount Pleasant to this day.
Built for King James I, this leafy road running to the south of St James’s Park was once the site of a royal aviary constructed early in the 17th century. Royal hunting birds were housed here, among them Hawks and Falcons.
Only the King’s Falconers and members of the royal family were permitted to ride in their carriages along its length. Anyone else had to walk, this being how it came to be known as Birdcage Walk.
Cockpit Steps – Westminster
This pleasant stone staircase in central London is a nice little find on a stroll through Westminster, its onetime use, however, may not be so pleasant to all. South running along Birdcage Walk, the steps mark a onetime site of royal cockfights; historically a popular pastime of the upper segments of society.
Although the 1700’s structure itself is no longer in existence, the steps are a reminder of what once occurred there.
There are plenty of more street names to come, but for now, why not check our the history of some of London’s most popular districts and boroughs.
Bishopsgate – The City of London
Bishopsgate, which runs through the City of London, got its name from one of the main seven gates into London from the North, it was originally built by the Romans and demolished in 1760. Records mention that the gate was rebuilt in the late 7th century by Eorconweald, Bishop of London, and is referred to as ‘gate of the bishop circa 1086.
Billingsgate – The City of London
Billingesgate (old english) or Billingsgate as we know it now, was a gate named after a man called billing. The gate was probably referred to the gap in the Roman riverside wall, giving access to the Thames, and also gave name to one of the ancient wards of the City. Cargo’s of fish were among the goods landed here from early times, thought Billingsgate did not become a specialised fish market until the late 17th century. Billingsgate fish market relocated to Poplar in 1982.