Curiosities of Literature, by Isaac Disraeli

Names of Our Streets.

Lord Orford has in one of his letters projected a curious work to be written in a walk through the streets of the metropolis, similar to a French work, entitled “Anecdotes des Rues de Paris.” I know of no such work, and suspect the vivacious writer alluded in his mind to Saint Foix’s “Essais Historiques sur Paris,” a very entertaining work, of which the plan is that projected by his lordship. We have had Pennant’s “London,” a work of this description; but, on the whole, this is a superficial performance, as it regards manners, characters, and events. That antiquary skimmed everything, and grasped scarcely anything; he wanted the patience of research, and the keen spirit which revivifies the past. Should Lord Orford’s project be carried into execution, or rather should Pennant be hereafter improved, it would be first necessary to obtain the original names, or the meanings, of our streets, free from the disguise in which time has concealed them. We shall otherwise lose many characters of persons, and many remarkable events, of which their original denominations would remind the historian of our streets.

I have noted down a few of these modern misnomers, that this future historian may be excited to discover more.

Mincing-lane was Mincheon-lane; from tenements pertaining to the Mincheons, or nuns of St. Helen’s, in Bishopsgate-street.

Gutter-lane, corrupted from Guthurun’s -lane; from its first owner, a citizen of great trade.

Blackwall-hall was Bakewell’s -hall, from one Thomas Bakewell; and originally called Basing’s -haugh, from a considerable family of that name, whose arms were once seen on the ancient building, and whose name is still perpetuated in Basing’s -lane.

Finch-lane was Finke’s -lane, from a whole family of this name.

Thread-needle-street was originally Thrid-needle-street, as Samuel Clarke dates it from his study there.

Billiter-lane is a corruption of Bellzetter’s -lane, from the first builder or owner.

Crutched-friars was Crowched or Crossed-friars.

Lothbury was so named from the noise of founders at their work; and, as Howell pretends, this place was called Lothbury, “disdainedly.”

Garlick-hill was Garlicke-hithe, or hive, where garlick was sold.

Fetter-lane has been erroneously supposed to have some connexion with the fetters of criminals. It was in Charles the First’s time written Fewtor-lane, and is so in Howell’s “Londinopolis,” who explains it from “Fewtors (or idle people) lying there as in a way leading to gardens.” It was the haunt of these Faitors, or “mighty beggars.” The Faitour, that is, a defaytor, or defaulter, became Fewtor; and in the rapid pronunciation, or conception, of names, Fewtor has ended in Fetter-lane.

Gracechurch-street, sometimes called Gracious-street, was originally Grass-street, from a herb-market there.

Fenchurch-street, from a fenny or moorish ground by a river side.

Galley-key has preserved its name, but its origin may have been lost. Howell, in his “Londinopolis,” says, “here dwelt strangers called Galley-men, who brought wines, &c. in Galleys.

Greek-street,“ says Pennant, “I am sorry to degrade into Grig-street;” whether it alludes to the little vivacious eel, or to the merry character of its tenants, he does not resolve.

Bridewell was St. Bridget’s -well, from one dedicated to Saint Bride, or Bridget.

Marybone was St. Mary-on-the-Bourne, corrupted to Marybone; as Holborn was Old Bourn, or the Old River; Bourne being the ancient English for river; hence the Scottish Burn.

Newington was New-town.

Maiden-lane was so called from an image of the Virgin, which, in Catholic days, had stood there, as Bagford writes to Hearne; and he says, that the frequent sign of the Maiden-head was derived from “our Lady’s head.”

Lad-lane was originally Lady’s -lane, from the same personage.

Rood-lane was so denominated from a Rood, or Jesus on the cross, there placed, which was held in great regard.

Piccadilly was named after a hall called Piccadilla-hall, a place of sale for Piccadillies, or turn-overs; a part of the fashionable dress which appeared about 1614. It has preserved its name uncorrupted; for Barnabe Rice, in his “Honestie of the Age,” has this passage on “the body-makers that do swarm through all parts, both of London and about London. The body is still pampered up in the very dropsy of excess. He that some fortie years sithens should have asked after a Pickadilly, I wonder who would have understood him; or could have told what a Pickcadilly had been, either fish or flesh.”1

Strype notices that in the liberties of Saint Catharine is a place called Hangmen’s -gains; the traders of Hammes and Guynes, in France, anciently resorted there; thence the strange corruption.

Smithfield is a corruption of Smoothfield; smith signifies smooth, from the Saxon ʃmeð. An antiquarian friend has seen it designated in a deed as campus planus, which confirms the original meaning. It is described in Fitz Stephen’s account of London, written before the twelfth century, as a plain field, both in reality and name, where “every Friday there is a celebrated rendezvous of fine horses, brought hither to be sold. Thither come to look or buy a great number of earls, barons, knights, and a swarm of citizens. It is a pleasing sight to behold the ambling nags and generous colts, proudly prancing.” This ancient writer continues a minute description, and, perhaps, gives the earliest one of a horse-race in this country. It is remarkable that Smithfield should have continued as a market for cattle for more than six centuries, with only the change of its vowels.

This is sufficient to show how the names of our streets require either to be corrected, or explained by their historian. The French, among the numerous projects for the moral improvement of civilised man, had one, which, had it not been polluted by a horrid faction, might have been directed to a noble end. It was to name streets after eminent men. This would at least preserve them from the corruption of the people, and exhibit a perpetual monument of moral feeling and of glory, to the rising genius of every age. With what excitement and delight may the young contemplatist, who first studies at Gray’s Inn, be reminded of Verulam-buildings!

The names of streets will often be found connected with some singular event, or the character of some person; and anecdotes of our streets might occupy an entertaining antiquary. Not long ago, a Hebrew, who had a quarrel with his community about the manner of celebrating the Jewish festival in commemoration of the fate of Haman, called Purim, built a neighbourhood at Bethnal-green, and retained the subject of his anger in the name which the houses bear, of Purim-place. This may startle some theological antiquary at a remote period, who may idly lose himself in abstruse conjectures on the sanctity of a name, derived from a well-known Hebrew festival; and, perhaps, in his imagination be induced to colonise the spot with an ancient horde of Israelites!

1 The term seems to have been applied to the article from the pointed or peaked edges of the lace which surrounded the stiff pleated ruffs, and may be constantly seen in portraits of the era of Elizabeth and James.

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Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:37