What’s in a name?

Road Signs With a city as old as London, which was founded by the Romans soon after their invasion in AD43; who eventually surrounded the City with a wall enclosing 330 acres and making it the 5th largest city in the Roman Empire, it’s not surprising that some strange street names have appeared over the centuries.

In the Square Mile of the City for example, an ancient ordinance defines a road as a highway without houses, which is why to this day, no thoroughfare in the City may be called a road; it’s either a street, lane, passage or an alley, much to the dismay of modernisers.

Here are some of the more unusual street names with that Square Mile:

Bucklesbury: An ancient city street from 14th Century named after the Buckerei a powerful family in the 12th century city. In Shakespeare’s time it was known for its apothecaries and the peculiar smell they made he made mention of the smell in the Merry Wives of Windsor.

Cripplegate: Derived from the crepel an Anglo-Saxon word for den or underground passage. After the curfew bells had been rung and the city gates were closed for the night it was impossible to enter, that is apart from that underground passage.

Crutched Friars: Not as rude as it sounds, but is an old form of ‘cross’ and takes its name from the holy order that stood nearby.

French Ordinary Court: Not about mundane Frenchies. ‘Ordinary’ is an eating house, this one dates back to 1670 for French ex-pats.

Frying Pan Alley: The frying pan was the emblem once used by braziers and ironmongers. It was the custom for ironmongers to hang a frying pan outside their premises as a means of advertising their business.

Idol Lane: Formerly ‘Idle Lane’ where lazy sods hung around.

Jewry Street: Again renamed from Poor Jewry to denote it from the rich Jews in Old Jewry.

Little Britain: Alas not as colourful as its name suggests. The Duke of Brittany had a house here before the 16th Century.

Minories: The Sorores Minores (Little Sisters) established a convent here in 1293. In 1958 we thought it a rather splendid idea to demolish their church.

Undershaft: Not what you might be thinking, it’s a boring maypole or shaft was erected nearby, but its use then banned for many years after the 1571 May Day Riots.

Wardrobe Place: From 1359 until burned down by the Great Fire, a place where, you’ve guessed it, ceremonial robes were kept.

A few more to throw into the mix: Threadneedle Street; Pudding Lane; Hanging Sword Alley; Poultry.

[A]nd a small reminder for our Mayor of London, Boris who was a student of history, and for all I know bases his current strategy on what he reads in CabbieBlog, you have only 33 years left to plan for the bi-millennium of the arrival of the Romans to London.

London’s Zoo

[A]sk any American tourist to name an animal statute in London and they would, in all probability, say the Trafalgar Square Lions, so for all our Colonial Cousins what better place to start than with these noble beasts at our Capital’s centre.

450px-Trafalgar_square_lion Landseer’s Lions
Queen Victoria’s favourite animal painter took some persuading to undertake the commission to sculpt London most famous lions. He insisted on having a still ‘model’ for his working drawings and eventually one of London Zoo’s male lions died and the body was duly delivered to the artist’s home. Landseer started sketching and all was going swimmingly that is until the neighbours complained of a rather strong smell, and Landseer’s model had to be removed. As a footnote, when you touch those mighty paws, they were modelled from a little domestic cat.

200px-Redlion Coade’s Lion
This rather aristocratic creature has travelled more widely than his Trafalgar Square brothers, starting life outside the Lion Brewery. When the brewery was demolished in 1951 to make way for the Festival of Britain Exhibition, he was put outside Waterloo Station at the request of King George VI. Coade’s Lion got itchy feet and once more was moved to his present site at the southern end of Waterloo Bridge. The technical skills for Coade Stone, a kind of terracotta, have been lost with the death of the last member of the Coade family, almost indestructible by the weather and always remaining white, a fortune could be made if you practised those skills hard enough.

Gresham grasshopper Gresham’s Grasshopper
Thomas Gresham laid the foundations of many of the City’s financial institutions and after his appointment as Ambassador to the Netherlands helped him understand European evaluation of commercial enterprise. On his return from his travels Gresham immediately set to work and built the first Royal Exchange at Bank Junction, it was his ambition was to build London’s first business trading centre taking the business away from the local coffee shops and concentrating all dealing within one building. At a huge cost to himself Gresham realised his dream and in the winter of 1570 Queen Elizabeth declared this unique trading centre open for business. He was an entrepreneur who was way ahead of his time and foresaw he needed his own emblem as a status symbol, so he would tell this tale his friends and business associates: Gresham pronounced that he was abandoned as a baby, wrapped in old cloth and hidden out of sight in huge field amongst long grass, the only reason he survived was because a young servant girl was attracted to the sound of the hissing of grasshoppers. The servant girl discovered young Gresham fast asleep and shivering from the cold and was taken from the field to a wealthy household and brought up as an orphan. Educated by his new family he then went out and attained great success. This was Thomas Gresham’s imagination going a little too far; however, it is a colourful story.

299680665_fed5536d21 Willie’s Mole
It was said that when St. James’s Square was built every resident had a title or was sleeping with someone with a title. Soon however it had become a tip of kitchen rubbish, dead cats, and all manner of rubbish, so an idea to erect a statute of King William III at its centre seemed a good idea, except the very wealthy residents refused to part with their money. Eventually it was built but the statute has something very odd about it, William is mounted upon his horse but at its feet there is a small molehill. William was the Protestant King brought to England from Holland to replace the last Catholic, King James, an act which was too many very unpopular. He died after falling from his horse which itself had tripped over a molehill. Jacobites then and now still toast the little gentleman in velvet.

petcem2 The Duke’s Dog
Every dog has its day and after the Duke of Cambridge’s dog was run over in 1881 he inaugurated this graveyard at Victoria Gate, Hyde Park so that ‘Ranger’ could be buried here. Incredibly by 1903 the graveyard was full and only dogs with family vaults can still be laid to rest here. The inscriptions are alternately heartrendering and baffling: ‘Could love have saved’, ‘Fritz, a martyr’, ‘A King of Pussies’.

General Smith’s Camels
The Imperial Camel Corps were established in 1916 from troops which had served in Gallipoli and were commanded by Brigadier General Smith, VC, composed mainly of Australian, New Zealand, Indian, Singaporean and British soldiers; the Corps had a mounted infantry role with the camels providing mobility, although it was intended that the troops should go into action dismounted (camel and rider were regarded as a self-contained unit for up to five days). The Imperial Camel Corps Memorial (a camelier mounted on a camel) was unveiled in 1921 at Victoria Embankment Gardens and commemorates the 346 members of the Corps who died.

Towering Ambition

I could have subtitled this post counting cranes for wherever you look these days in London a large building is being constructed. Towards the end of the 1920s the Empire State Building was constructed in New York, mostly using cheap immigrant labour from Europe, it was completed in 1929 just as the last severe depression was beginning to be felt. Because of its position the building could not be let and was nicknamed the Empty State Building.

[N]ow in London we are seeing some of the largest towers in London’s history being constructed, not to help unemployed British jobs, but to speculate on an upturn in the City’s finances using the abundant labour available at a time of recession hoping against hope to ride the recovery promised by politicians in the next 18 months.

Their height makes life for pedestrians below a misery. The pavement now can be described as ‘a  place where the sun don’t shine’ and because of their height cold air is funnelled down the building’s side to fall literally on pedestrians heads. Go to Canary Wharf and you can experience this cooling effect in both summer and winter, you won’t find many people enjoying a Continental cafe culture here on its pavement, in fact nearly all socialising and shopping is conducted underground.

So who can we blame for this deteriorating of London’s environment? Town planners for sure, companies wishing to extract as much value from their buildings’ footprint as possible, certainly, but the main culprits have to be the architects.

Many of these new skyscrapers are aesthetically no better than the buildings they replace and much taller, but worst, much worst is their location which makes them disproportionately tall for their position in the townscape.

The Sterling prize winning Swiss Re: Tower (‘The Gherkin’) is, (and it pains me to say this) a triumph of design and engineering, and less obtrusive than its volume would normally dictate, but now being obscured by two new towers, The Heron Tower and The Pinnacle being built in Bishopsgate nearby. Equally intended to enhance its area near London Bridge, The Shard has the potential to be a world class piece of engineering, but Southwark Cathedral will be forever in its shadow.

I remain convinced that all these, in many cases, indifferent additions to our City, are just built to massage the vast egos of the senior partners of the architectural practices and their clients.

Dummy’s London

[F]or those of you who take a passing interest in this blog, you might have seen on my sidebar that recently I‘ve been reading a London guide aimed at helping Americans around our Capital City, and what little gems are to be found between the covers of this tome?

The author, Donald Olson, is not someone I have read before, but he clearly loves London with a passion, and has written the guide in small sections that are: to quote him ‘as brief as a bikini’.

dummies He starts by introducing London to the first time visitor, with his recommendations for museums, eating, shopping, and the arts and his personal favourite London charms; moving on a very concise history of the city. A more comprehensive description follows, many of which have icons for: best of the best, heads up where to get a bargain and not be conned; kid friendly and my personal favourite London Tattler, inside gossip.

With an excellent guide to hotels, foreign exchange, first aid, transport and all the information necessary to make a perfect break in London.

However, I take exception to his contention to purchase a strong pair of walking shoes to save on cab fares, and personally I naturally would recommend a taxi tour; all cabs in London have disabled access another error in the 4th edition; and surprisingly he does not recommend the Palm Court at The Ritz for high tea; no doubt these small errors have been rectified in the latest edition.

I particularly liked the description of Madame Tussaud’s: ‘The question is: Do you want to pay the exorbitant admission and devote time to see a collection of lifelike [wax] figures?’ – A polite way of saying avoid like the plague. And on renting a car in London – Not! ‘Manoeuvring through London’s congested and complicated maze of streets can be endurance test even for Londoners’; tell me about it.

But my favourite, and this says something of American’s endurance, is his potted London in three-days: Westminster Abbey; Houses of Parliament; London Eye; Tate Britain; Piccadilly Circus; a West End show; Leicester Square, and that’s just day one. Day two: Green Park; Buckingham Palace; Changing of the Guards; Royal Mews; St. James’s Park; Clarence House; St. James’s Palace; Trafalgar Square; National Gallery; St. Martin’s in the Fields. Day three: Tower of London; St. Paul’s Cathedral; British Museum; Harrods – Cripes! He even expands this to five- or seven-day tours, just where do they get the energy?

It came as a welcome surprise to me to find that this book, clearly designed for Americans to explore our city, taught me a thing or two about London and as a working cabbie I would urge you to read it before crossing the Atlantic. I personally intend to keep a copy in my London cab as this is an excellent reference book for our great City.

Weather we care

They must have done something at the recent Copenhagen Conference to prevent global warming for since then it hasn’t stopped snowing and with London temperatures dropping to levels not seen for over 20 years you have to feel sorry for those sleeping rough on the streets of London.

It was when I started the Knowledge of London that first I noticed, with shock and dismay, the number of people sleeping rough, it was, I suppose when trying to be more observant to increase my knowledge that I then noticed just how many people were to be found in shop doorways at night.

[L]ondon has always had a homelessness problem, William the Conqueror forbade anyone to leave the land where they worked, if by so doing they effectively made themselves homeless, and as far back as the 7th Century, laws were passed laws to punish vagrants. In the 13th Century Edward I (He of Braveheart fame) ordered weekly searches to round up vagrants.

Bridewell Palace The Unilever building at the north end of Blackfriars Bridge stands on the site of Bridewell Palace (shown right in an early 19th Century imaginary reconstruction of Bridewell Palace in 1660 showing the entrance to the Fleet River). First built by Henry VIII and later leased to the French Ambassador at which time the interior was used by Holbein for his painting The Ambassadors. By the time Edward VI took possession the palace was in a state of disrepair and he gave it to the City for the reception of vagrants and homeless children. Later becoming a prison, the name Bridewell became synonymous with an institution providing unsanitary conditions and cruelty for the poor and homeless, but it was here in the 16th Century that the State first tried to house vagrants rather than punish them. It began introducing Bridewells, places meant to take vagrants in and train them for a profession, and in 1788 prisoners were given straw for their beds (other prisons had neither beds nor straw) but in reality Bridewells were dirty and brutal places.

bridewell_gate By the 18th Century workhouses had replaced the Bridewells, but these were intended to discourage over-reliance on state help. At best they were spartan places with meagre food and sparse furnishings – at worst they were unsanitary and uncaring. By 1863 the building which started Bridewell prison was demolished, after transferring prisoners to Holloway, and now only the gateway built in 1802 remains (pictured left), it can be seen at No. 14 New Bridge Street.

The numbers of vagrants has risen and fallen, and precise figures are hard to estimate, but by the 1930s eighty were found sleeping rough during a street count in London, but after the Second World War in 1949 a low of only six people were found sleeping rough in London.

Street counts provide a useful snapshot of the number of people sleeping rough on a single night but are best regarded as indicators of trends, rather than exact numbers of men and women who sleep rough. The annual estimate of the numbers sleeping out in England on any single night is published in September each year. The 2007 annual estimate found there were 248 people sleeping rough in London on a single night, which equates to around 3,000 people sleeping rough in London each year, while the 2008 figure was no better at 4,077.

This year homelessness has jumped by 15 per cent with Eastern Europeans, who have lost jobs and have fewer means of social support, now constitute nearly one in seven of those living without permanent shelter. The annual returns, compiled by the charity Broadway on behalf of the Government, show that 4,672 rough sleepers were counted in the capital and only around 60 per cent were UK nationals.

The Government’s target of ending rough sleeping in the capital by 2012 is unlikely to be achieved unless more is done to break the link between mental health problems and homelessness.

I now return, like any good Englishman, to talk about the weather. Why is it that every year at Christmas we open, to great publicity on television, makeshift shelters for the homeless only to close them after the holiday at a time when London’s temperature starts to fall? Even in 1788 vagrants were given straw to sleep upon?