London myths debunked

Matt Brown, Editor-at-Large of, debunks the capital’s most tenacious myths in his new book Everything You Know About London Is Wrong.

In this Guest Post, he looks at some of the famous bits of trivia to do with London’s roads. We all know that London’s streets are not really paved with gold, but they are lined with myths and misconceptions.

[D]id you know, for example, that the M25 does not quite encircle London (it becomes an A-road over the Dartford crossing and several bits of London poke outside of the motorway)? Other roads are often known by the wrong name. There is, for example, no such street as Bond Street (only New Bond Street and Old Bond Street). The visitor will search in vain for the famous Petticoat Lane, which has officially been known as Middlesex Street for over 100 years. The Strand is officially just ‘Strand’, and King’s Road carries signs both with and without the apostrophe. What a muddle.

Here are three more misconceptions about London, adapted from my book Everything You Know About London Is Wrong.

Black cab drivers must carry a bale of hay everywhere they go
This little nugget falls into the category of “ancient laws never repealed”. One can readily imagine a time when cabs were pulled by horses. A bale of hay would serve the equivalent role of diesel in the modern motor. Most cabbies I’ve asked about the legend chuckle to themselves and tell me it’s completely true. They’re still required by law to drive around with a block of hay in the boot. None of them do, of course.

The commandment seems to have no basis in law. The closest Westminster came to forcing bales of hay on cabbies comes in the London Hackney Carriage Act 1831. Section 51 of this Act concerns itself with the many ways that drivers might block the street — one of which involves horse feed. Drivers must not:

. . . feed the Horses of or belonging to any Hackney Carriage in any Street, Road or common Passage, save only with Corn out of a Bag, or with Hay which he shall hold or deliver with his Hands.

The Act does not require the cabman to carry any food at all, stipulating only that feeding must be done from the hand and not block the carriageway with bales or troughs. The penalty for such a misdemeanour was 20 shillings. If a modern cab driver attempted to place a bale of hay in front of her vehicle, her 20 shillings would be safe. The legislation was quashed as part of the Statute Law (Repeals) Act 1976.


There are no roads in the City of London
One of the great pieces of London trivia posits that the City of London contains not a single thoroughfare that carries the word “Road” in its name. You’ll find plenty of Streets, Hills, Alleys and Squares, but never a Road.

This was probably the case for much of London’s history. Until modern times, a street (from the Latin via strata meaning a laid-down way) was normally a paved thoroughfare within a town centre. A road, by contrast, usually led away from town (cf. the Uxbridge Road) or between nearby towns. The City of London has been densely settled for 1,000 years, so any roads such as City Road and Goswell Road begin outside its well-defined and ancient borders.

This was true up until 1994. In that year, boundary changes did away with centuries of tradition. The City expanded north to take in the Golden Lane estate. In doing so, it absorbed Goswell Road, bringing a road within the boundaries of the city for the first time. I’m told that the change was not made in ignorance, and that some members of the Corporation council argued vociferously for a name change, to preserve the historic absence, to no avail.

This overturned piece of trivia can still cling desperately to a life-preserving piece of pedantry. The boundary line runs along the middle of Goswell Road: the western half is in the Borough of Islington while the eastern half alone rests within the Square Mile. So it can still be said that there is not a single road in the City of London, merely a half road.


Savoy Court is the only place in London where you must drive on the right
The eye is easily drawn into Savoy Court, a small turning off the Strand. The art deco facade and entrance to the Savoy Hotel is one of London’s minor landmarks. If you let your gaze linger, you might spot something decidedly odd about the court. Cars are instructed to enter via the right-hand lane, contrary to normal UK traffic regulations.

It is often claimed that Savoy Court is the only road in Britain where you may drive on the right. This is not quite true. Such a set up is common at bus stations, for example. Bus doors are always on the left-hand side of a vehicle. Whenever the bus is serving an island bus shelter, it makes sense for it to approach from the right and loop anti-clockwise around the shelter, so that its doors always face into the island to allow boarding or disembarkation. Hammersmith bus station is a good example. Instructions to “drive on right” are clearly marked on the tarmac by the entrance.

“OK, but that’s for buses only,” you might retort. True, but there are many examples where cars and other private vehicles are required to drive on the right. The car park at Victoria station, for example, has a reversed layout. The setup is potentially confusing for pedestrians crossing the entrance of the car park, who must remember to look for approaching vehicles in the non-intuitive direction. Even named roads can be right-handed. Petty France in the Square Mile has a cycle contra flow on the “wrong” side of the road. Most impressive of all, if that’s the right word, is the Tottenham Hale gyratory. Until recently, a short section known as The Hale featured a reversed-direction dual carriageway. Vehicles were separated by a central partition, but they nevertheless proceeded in the “wrong” direction. There are many other examples across the country.

But what’s the Savoy’s reason for its contrarian courtyard? The Savoy Theatre’s entrance is on the right-hand side. Forcing vehicles to enter on the right allowed cabs to queue up to the doors of the theatre, without blocking the hotel entrance just beyond. Boring, but true.

Other inaccuracies persist with this legend. Look up the story online and you will find dozens of sites parroting a supposed Act of Parliament in 1902, which gave the hotel permission to reverse driving priority. No such act exists, and no record of a relevant debate is to be found in Hansard, the official record of the Houses of Parliament.

Neither I nor the Savoy’s archivist have ever found any mention of official sanction. I suspect it was never given. The court was most probably made right-handed in the early 1930s, a time when traffic enforcement was not as strict as today. My best guess is that the Savoy, being on private land, simply went ahead with its novel road scheme without any public debate or permission from the local authorities.

The set-up has not always worked harmoniously. Queues to turn right into the courtyard from Strand caused major holdups in the 1960s. A policeman was stationed on the junction to help ease the flow. Right turns were eventually outlawed, although this has since been reversed.

Incidentally, the story that Britain’s left-handed road system originated on London Bridge appears to have at least a patch of truth to it. The narrow bridge had long been a traffic bottleneck. In 1722, Lord Mayor Gerard Conyers decreed that “all carts, coaches and other carriages coming out of Southwark into this City do keep all along the west side of the said bridge: and all carts and coaches going out of the City do keep along the east side of the said bridge”. In other words, “keep left”. The directive may have been arbitrary, or it may have been based on earlier custom to drive on this side. Nobody really knows, but many just-so stories have been advanced. Some say that the Romans always marched on the left, and that the habit has remained with us through the centuries. Others point to a medieval origin. Sticking to the left of the road would place oncoming traffic to your right, and therefore in range of your sword arm (assuming you are right-handed). Your carriage could be defended from any approaching ne’erdowells. It’s possible, though unproven.

Featured image: Cab in Corn ©Rikkis Taxi


CabbieBlog-cabThis is not a sponsored post. The author has written this Guest Post for CabbieBlog. Other articles from Matt Brown can be found at The Londonist.
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