Cork Street is a short thoroughfare in Mayfair lined with art galleries, having gained its name from the 1st Earl of Burlington who also happened to be 2nd Earl of Cork in Ireland. It was he, you might recall, who had built Burlington Arcade to stop dead cats being thrown into his back garden.
Before the galleries this little street was the epicentre of Georgian London’s artificial leg industry.
[I]n the 18th century a broken leg was a common injury brought about through war or more commonly falling from a horse. If you were unfortunate enough to have suffered that fate the high risk of it turning septic, ultimately resulting in death, necessitated amputation.
The fate of the poor was a wooden extension strapped to the stump; just imagine Alastor ‘Mad-Eye Moody in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. These were often referred as Peg Legs – a nomenclature attached (no pun) to its owner.
According to Mr. Foote’s Other Leg by Ian Kelly in 1766 puppet maker Mr. Addison of Hanover Street, Long Acre made for Samuel Foote England’s first articulated prosthesis. Its articulation at the knee and foot, like a puppet’s was not the only innovative aspect, Foote’s bodyweight was held by two circular straps that took the strain when he leaned on the artificial limb’s side of the body, rather than bear down on a wooden stump.
With London’s surgeons producing a steady stream of wealthy unit-pedals expert craftsmen congregated in Cork Street, meticulously fashioning bespoke, precision-made limbs using hardwoods and leather with articulated joints fitted with intricate spring mechanisms.
This superior class of limb, fitted and purchased in Cork Street soon became known as a ‘Cork Leg’ to distinguish it from the primitively made ‘Peg Leg’.
Dickens describing tourists in Little Dorrit wrote “These legs were called ‘cork legs’ in England, not because they were made of cork, for they were not, but because the best kind of them were made in London in Cork Street”.
These ingenious devices did have their drawbacks. Although one could walk in a room or smooth ground such legs were not suitable for rough terrain as the springs which moved the foot continually gave way. This instability, with its wearer continually falling to the ground gave rise to the expression “Dropped like a cork leg”.
Picture of Santa Anna’s cork leg