The A-Zed of London

I was flicking through a facsimile of Phyllis Pearsall’s Geographers’ London A-Z, first printed in 1938 before World War II bombing and post-war redevelopment. Boasting that it contained 23,000 streets, ‘9,000 more than any other similar atlas’ and priced at 1/- or 5p at today’s money.

Using the book’s title as the starting point the first street in their index is Abbeville Road, SW4 and the last that Phillis found on her supposed 12-month trudge around London was Zoffany Street, N19, given as 16E:36 which wasn’t to be found on those coordinates given, or anywhere else I could find. Also were 31 pages set in 8pt of LCC street name changes, all very confusing.

Roll on nearly 80 years and my, now digital A-Z Navigation Master, reveals that both of these streets at either end of the alphabet have been eclipsed by later contenders, and within a nanosecond, my device points me in the correct direction.

Digital speed

The single keystroke gave me the first street in London as Aaron Hill Road, Beckton.

Beckton is renowned for its vast sewage works and what was once the world’s largest gasworks. Just around the block from Aaron Hill Road stands a surviving Victorian street of workers’ homes, that’s Winsor Terrace, but that’s very much atypical from its near neighbours.

In 1981 the London Docklands Development Corporation moved in and started transforming the area into a huge housing estate, of far lower density than you might expect today. But Aaron Hill Road is of slightly later vintage, carved on the edge of an industrial estate in 1999, along with its neighbour Angelica Close.

On one side of Aaron Hill Road are the back of warehouses, occupied by logistics companies like TNT. A warren of three-storey blocks with courtyards is to be found on the south side of the road, each grouped around spaces for cars rather than anywhere a child might play.

The architecture has little to commend itself, and unsurprisingly a 2-bed flat on Aaron Hill Road sells for around £300,000, but this is, of course, London.

Who, or where was Aaron Hill

And who was Aaron Hill? A quick search, something unavailable to Phillis Pearsall finds that 400 years ago he was a poet and dramatist, renowned for his adaptations of Voltaire. His first Newham connection is that he married an heiress from the ‘Great House’ in Stratford Langthorne, close to where West Ham station is today. His second Newham connection is that after retiring from public life he came to live in Plaistow, then a ‘pleasant rural village’ on the edge of the Thames marshes, where he enjoyed reading, writing and doing the garden. Devoid of adequate gardens the road named after him lacks adequate horticultural challenge, but I’m sure Aaron would be pleased to have bequeathed the first street in London.

As the other end of the alphabet, and at a price range of £1,600,000, is Zulu Mews, Battersea SW11. Zulu Mews is a relatively recent construction, squeezed into a gap beside a railway viaduct in Battersea in 2010.

When Alfred Heaver laid out the Falcon Estate in 1880, the terraces of Rowena Crescent were set back at a discreet distance from the railway to give residents some peace. But the land is much more valuable today, so the scrappy dogleg behind their back gardens is now filled with ten sleek modern terraced dwellings.

It may not come as a surprise to hear that this is a gated development to seal off Zulu Mews from the hoipolloi. Similar to Aaron Hill Road in that the architecture is hardly ground-breaking, but the rising street has an almost Mediterranean feel, with pristine shrubs potted outside front doors in lieu of an actual garden. Each house has an integral garage, even if at first glance they don’t look large enough, bedrooms and utilities are downstairs, then above is an open plan living/dining/study area. Gardeners need not apply because the only outdoor space is a roof terrace on top of the garage, amusingly smaller than the residents of Aaron Hill Road enjoy.

You can also get a good view of these expensive properties from an Overground train, immediately to the north of Shillington Park. A long drab brick wall rises up, deliberately windowless to shield out the rattle of trains, and daubed with graffiti along its entire length. How the residents must deplore the scribble on the other side of their luxury bathroom wall, and not being able to do anything about cleaning it off.

Why Zulu Mews?

And why is it called Zulu Mews? All the original streets on the Falcon Estate commemorate British Army victories which took place while the houses were under construction, including Afghan Road, Khyber Road and Candahar Road. The list also originally included Zulu Crescent, but that name proved too bloodthirsty for some of its residents so within a couple of years was it was renamed Rowena Crescent.

When the new mews development was slipped in behind Rowena Crescent it was gifted the original Zulu name as a nod to the past, and perhaps in recognition that society’s no longer quite so squeamish.

Had the developers not chosen to name their mews development after a war that the British army was nearly defeated at Rorke’s Drift, and made famous by the film Zulu starring Michael Caine, who lives nearby, Zoffany Street would have been the last street in the London A-Z, and indeed in every edition since 1938 . . . but where would be the story in that?

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