Bebbington, Gillian. Street Names of London.

London: Trafalgar Square Publishing, 1989.

Anyone who has spend much time in London — including most of its residents who venture from their own neighborhoods — owns a well-thumbed A-to-Z. The city’s streets, most of which developed organically over centuries, seldom run very far in a straight line and there’s no overarching numbering or naming system, so it’s easy for even a New Yorker to get lost. But this marvelous book will take you a step or two farther.

Suppose you’ve finally found Sherlock Holmes’s digs in Baker Street. Probably the name came from the breadmaking trade, right? No, Bebbington will tell you it was named for the 18th century property developer, William Baker, who was so successful at his business, he was created a baronet. And that’s only the start! There’s an enormous amount of local history and geography. The author covers some 4,000 names of streets, lanes, roads, courts, yards, terraces, and avenues (all terms that once had specific technical meanings), within an area of twenty-five miles, from Abbey Orchard Street, located on the ground where the monks of Westminster once grew their apples and pears, to Zoar Street in Southwark, the site of a 17th century Baptist chapel where John Bunyan once preached.

Along the way you’ll find Rangoon Street, which used to be lined with the East India Company’s tea warehouses, and Moor Lane (and Moorfields and Moorgate), which commemorates the marshes that used to hug the outside of the City’s north wall, and Epworth Street, named for the town of Epworth in Lincolnshire, where John Wesley was born, and where the house where he lived and died still stands as a museum, and Culpeper Street, where a 17th century physician and astrologer of that name kept an extensive herb garden, and Hounsditch, where Londoners used to dispose of their garbage (and especially their deceased dogs), and Soho, taken from a medieval hunting cry (think “tally-ho” — though it takes some doing to imagine fox-hunting in this neighborhood, even half a millennium ago), and Bunhill, originally “Bone Hill,” a marshy district where surplus bones were dumped when local charnel houses became overcrowded, and Threadneedle Street, close to where the Great Fire started, and where the Merchant Taylors Hall has stood since the 14th century. And I could go on for pages. There are also frequent cross-references, which help to make it difficult to stop reading and put the book down!

It doesn’t take long to notice certain patterns, either. Many street names derive from the great aristocratic families that originally owned the land and which they began developing in the 17th and 18th centuries as Greater London boomed, including the Dukes of Bedford, the Dukes of Portland, the Marquesses of Tavistock, and the Earls of Oxford, all of whom have streets named not only for their principal titles, but also their subordinate titles, family names, country estates, and even villages they owned in other counties. A great many streets took their names from the owner of the first big house constructed there. Many others are named for the local inn or pub (which explained why there used to be so many “Phoenix Streets” and “Lion Streets,” until local authorities began renaming the duplicates in the 19th century to reduce confusion), or for the business or trade for which the street was known. Though one may be misled there, as well: Horse Shoe Alley on the Bankside was named not for a farrier’s establishment but for the Horseshoe Tavern in the reign of Elizabeth I, when it was said the whole street was “a continual alehouse.”

Some names of thoroughfares are very ancient, like Cheapside, which comes from the Anglo-Saxon word for “market” and which for centuries was London’s central market, and Ludgate (meaning “back gate” — nothing whatever to do with a legendary “King Lud” of the Saxons), and Chelsea (site of an Anglo-Saxon village and the meaning of which is still uncertain), and Clerkenwell, which was the location since at least the 11th century of several fresh-water springs where the area’s parish clerks used to gather (presumably for a cool drink and a chance to gossip). It’s unfortunate that this valuable, fascinating, and thoroughly addictive book was allowed to go out of print. My copy is filled with bookmarks and marginal notes and I’ll never give it up!

Published in: on 27 August 2011 at 2:54 am  Leave a Comment  
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