Category Archives: Puppydog tails

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.

Look Behind You

It’s pantomime time again, when small children get their first experience of live theatre and for those of you who aren’t lucky enough to experience this Christmas treat, a small explanation is necessary. Panto originated about 16th century and in the tradition of the time audience participation was to be encouraged, another essential ingredient today, as then, is trans-gender dressing with a shapely young woman dressing up as the best “boy”, while middle aged male actors don outlandish female clothes as the ugly sisters. The narrative is usually based on a children’s story or fable and a perennial favourite is Dick Whittington and his Cat, drawing inspiration from the poem:

Turn again, Whittington,
Once Lord Mayor of London!
Turn again, Whittington,
Twice Lord Mayor of London!
Turn again, Whittington,
Thrice Lord Mayor of London!

Dick's cat The story of Dick Whittington is a familiar one, poor boy comes to the metropolis thinking the streets were paved with gold and seeking his fame and fortune. Unable to achieve his goal he leaves London travelling northward accompanied by his black cat. Upon reaching Highgate Hill (about three miles north from the City of London) he turns for one last glance and hears the bells of Bow Church in Cheapside, itself very improbable given the distance involved. Believing the bells are sending him a message, telling him to turn back, he returns to the City, becomes Lord Mayor of London and makes his fortune.

At the bottom of Highgate Hill a small stone plinth with a cat marks the spot where Dick Whittington is said to have heard the sound of the bells and a nearby hospital still carries his name.

The story of Richard Whittington (1354-1423) is somewhat different from the fable and if anything is more fascinating.

Born into a rich aristocratic family in the Forest of Dean, Richard Whittington entered the City in the 1380s, and was apprenticed as a Mercer (a dealer in cloth). After completing his apprenticeship he quickly established himself as a merchant and became a major importer of European fabrics. An appointment to the royal court firmly established him as a gentleman of repute, and with astute commercial enterprise he amassed a huge fortune, becoming a money lender counting sovereigns among others as his clients. Whittington was now at the height of his powers among London’s elite and was awarded many titles including four times Lord Mayor, Alderman, a Member of Parliament and a High Court Judge.

For someone so wealthy, Richard Whittington was a man of conscience, but his charitable work among the City’s poor and disadvantaged is little known. In his lifetime Whittington gave to a variety of good causes, a ward for unmarried mothers at St Thomas’ Hospital, rebuilding of the Guildhall, installing the first public drinking fountains and drainage systems for the city streets. He left the majority of his huge fortune to charity, providing in his Will a sum of £7,000 (£3 million today) to be used for good causes, also the buildings and repair of many City Institutions were benefactors of Whittington’s legacy. London’s poor were not forgotten with the building of almshouses and a hospital in the street that his house stood. These charitable dwellings still exist and are located in Felbridge near Surrey; its occupants consist mainly of elderly women and the Whittington Charity continues to disburse its funds to the disadvantaged through the Mercer’s Company.

But perhaps for the Pantomime Season his revolutionary scheme for public hygiene should be recreated. Located close to where Southwark Bridge now stands Whittington engineered his grand project to improve personal hygiene for the poor, building all-purpose latrines across the River Thames foreshore; there was enough seating for 40 people in one sitting (so to speak), and using the tide to flush to effluent downriver. Ironically the Corporation of London later built their health and hygiene department of works on this site.

Hackney Carriages

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[H]ackney, this impoverished region of east London, was probably unknown to most of the world before the Olympic Games Committee decided its marshes would make a rather splendid place to hold the next Games.

The term Hackney Carriage is used the world over to describe a vehicle for hire, but first things first, Hackney [pronounced AK-ni] is now a fashionable place to reside, just don’t, I repeat don’t, call it Hackney, the locals will take you for an out-of-town plonker.

In medieval England Hackney was just a small village north-east of the City, on the west side of the River Lea, but separated from it by a large area of marshland where they are now constructing the Olympic Village. The countryside was pleasant, open, good-quality grassland, which became famous for the horses bred and pastured there. These were riding horses, ‘ambling horses’, as opposed to war horses or draught horses. Hence hackney became the standard term for a horse used for riding in industrial or domestic work. These horses were also made available for hire, and so the word also came to refer, about the end of the fourteenth century, to any horse that was intended to be hired out.

Later still, the emphasis of the word shifted from ‘horse’ to ‘hire’, and it was used for any passenger vehicle similarly available, especially the hackney coach or hackney carriage. This last term of course became the usual one for a vehicle that could be hired, today’s London black taxis, with not a horse in sight, are still formally referred to by that name.

In the nature of things that are hired out to all and sundry, these horses of the hackney type were often worked heavily, so the word evolved in parallel with the previous sense to refer figuratively to something that was overused to the point of drudgery.

By the middle of the sixteenth century, hackney was being applied to people in just this sense, and was abbreviated about the start of the eighteenth century to hack, as in hack work; it was applied in particular to literary drudges who dashed off poor-quality writing to order, hence its modern pejorative application to journalists and now I suppose to the world of blogging.

Hackney horses were also widely available and commonly seen, to the extent that they became commonplace and unremarkable. So yet another sense evolved for something used so frequently and indiscriminately as to have lost its freshness and interest, hence something stale, unoriginal or trite. The adjective hackneyed communicated this idea from about the middle of the eighteenth century on.

By the way, it was thought at one time that this whole set of words derived from the French haquenée, an ambling horse. The first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary considered this to be so, but modern writers are sure that the French term was actually borrowed from the English place name, so great was the reputation of Hackney’s horses even in medieval times.

As the Victorian musical hall song went:

With a ladder and some glasses

You could see the Hackney Marshes,

If it wasn’t for the houses in between.

Well now it’s the largest building site in Europe obstructing the view.

London’s Urban Myths

The Seven Noses of Soho

The Myth of the 7 Noses of Soho is a peculiar one. Rumour has it that there are 7 sculpted noses on buildings in the square mile that is Soho. It’s said that if an individual finds all 7 they also attain infinite wealth. Oh! If I find all 7 noses and become infinitely wealthy you can be assured that I would share the infinite wealth fairly with everyone who reads CabbieBlog. Paul Raymond is the only person attributed to finding them turning him from a failed ventriloquist into a property mogul.

Pigeon Travel cards

It’s not much as urban legends go, but many people claim that pigeons regularly ride the Underground on certain routes, routinely boarding and exiting at the same stations. Not surprisingly, my sources aren’t clear on which stations or lines the pigeons have been seen riding. I’ve seen one board a train at Earl’s Court, but I’m not certain it was deliberate. I didn’t see it alight from the train, either. Scary thought, that: first clever sheep, now intelligent commuting sky rats.

moon Ghost of the Underground

While on the theme of the Underground, it is less expected to discover a ghost on the Tube, and not far from the Tower. Staff at Aldgate station have been keeping a log of such incidents since the 1950s. In one report a maintenance worker is said to have survived a 22,000 volt shock from the third rail, immediately after a colleague had observed what he took to be a grey-haired figure, presumably his guardian angel, gently stroking his hair.

Queen’s Resting Place

Boudica was queen of the Iceni tribe of East Anglia. She joined up with the Trinovantes of Essex to rebel against the Roman treatment of her people. Together they attacked Roman settlements at Colchester, St Albans and destroyed the city of Londinium in AD60. She is said to be buried under platform 9 or 10 of King’s Cross Station.

Nelson in a gilded cage

Contrary to the popular rumour Nelson’s body isn’t in the gilded ball on the top of St. Paul’s Cathedral but down below in the crypt. Brought back to England preserved in a barrel of rum, Nelson’s body on arrival was placed in a magnificent sarcophagus originally intended for Cardinal Wolsey. The Cardinal didn’t need it after his altercation with Henry VIII.

Sniffy Judges

Judges presiding at the Old Bailey today still at certain times carry nosegays of aromatic herbs. This is a tradition harking back to a time when typhus or “jail fever” was endemic in the Justice Hall of Newgate. There is of course no evidence that a nosegay provides any protection whatsoever.

Camelot in Cockfosters?

Sir Thomas Mallory seemed convinced that Winchester was Camelot. Now there is another contender for the site of Arthur’s legendary Court, this time in North London, at the far end of the Piccadilly Line. Yes, I know it sounds rather far-fetched, but all the evidence (and there is plenty of it) indicates that a real Camelot once existed at the very centre of Enfield Chase, the Royal Hunting Ground of the Plantagenet Kings. Today it is still there, hidden in woods on the fringe of Trent Country Park, and known as Camlet Moat. Archaeological digs have been conducted, back in the 1880s and again in 1923 and some interesting finds were unearthed. They suggest a substantial structure with stone walls over five and a half feet thick, a massive drawbridge 38ft long and a subterranean dungeon. Sounds like a castle, doesn’t it? Smaller relics from the Roman period suggest the site is originally of impressive antiquity.

So how far will your cabbie go?

Sorry, I had to clear up this Urban Myth. Cabbies do not have to take you wherever you choose. Unless we have a good reason not to, drivers must: Accept any hiring up to 12 miles (20 miles if starting at Heathrow Airport) or one hour duration if the destination is in Greater London. Fares for destinations outside Greater London may be negotiated between the passenger and driver before the journey. If no fare is agreed before the start of the journey then the maximum fare will be that shown on the meter at the end of the journey. There, now don’t ask me again.

Capt. Jack Sparrow FM

I don’t know why it’s taken me so long to write about this, but I suppose this is something we in London stoically accept, it’s a distraction when driving, illegal and costs industry money.

Travelling through a less than salubrious district of London and listening to LBC James Whale’s radio show recently the signal disintegrated into a jumble of voices and music.

[U]nlike many of my colleagues I don’t listen to the strong signal provided by Capital Gold (how many times can you listen to the same 20 songs?), preferring rather to listen to talk only stations. With the notable exception of Radio 4, the problem is that these commercial radio stations have a weak signal.

The manufacturers of the ‘iconic’ London taxi, when redesigning the latest vehicle decided to keep the nostalgia of the taxi we remember from our childhood. Unfortunately they were over enthusiastic and kept the poor brakes (without ABS), leaking bodywork and yes, a radio straight out of 1950’s. Some days I turn on the radio expecting to hear Worker’s Playtime amongst the static.

So why should I, just because I haven’t got a digital radio, have to listen to Dizzee Rascal or advertisements from a Caribbean greengrocer?

Pirate interference is a serious problem in London. These stations interfere with licensed broadcasters and make listening to the radio in some areas almost intolerable. The law claims to offer harsh sanctions for those convicted of illegal broadcasting. In 2005 Ofcom seized the transmitter of a West London illegal station as it was causing interference. The station manager was later convicted at Acton Magistrates Court of theft of a transmitter, and of rendering a service to an illegal station. He was fined £250 on each count.

The real world of pirate radio stations nowadays is very different from the romantic and nostalgic picture of the 1960s. The reality is that illegal stations do real harm to the communities they purport to serve. They are operated with wanton disregard for the health and safety of others and, in many cases, are highly profitable operations that feed other criminal activities.

They cause significant disruption and damage to legitimate businesses that have paid significant sums to the Government in licence fees for radio frequencies that are in large part unusable. Many illegal stations are tied to the drugs trade and are used to promote events where drugs can be bought or sold.

A report in the The Times last year summarised the position well when it said:

There are more than 150 illegal stations across the country, a third of which are said to be run by criminal gangs who use them as a front to sell drugs. Previous raids have found drugs, guns and ammunition among the piles of CDs. Drug dealers within earshot of some stations keep tuned to wait for a particular song to be played or a phrase to be uttered, knowing that it is the signal that their next shipment is ready for collection.

There you have it from The Thunder no less, and all I want to do is listen to some London news . . . and drive a cab that been designed for the 21st century without listening to Marconi’s original radio.