Tag Archives: London’s streets

Just where was London’s first door number?

Many of us know of Number 1, London – Apsley House, built in 1778 on the north side of Piccadilly. At the time, it was next to the main turnpike or toll into central London, so became known as ‘Number 1, London’, because it was the first house you came to once you entered London.

The property’s official address today is 149 Piccadilly, Hyde Park Corner, London, W1J 7NT, but rumours still abound today that if you posted a letter to ‘Number 1, London’ it would reach this address. We haven’t tried this one, but if you do, let me know how you get on.

Apsley House by Paul Farmer (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Just before a lease for the land was negotiated from the Crown Estate and builders stood around shaking their heads while telling his Lordship they had discovered problems in the build, The Postage Act of 1765 was given Royal Assent, apparently to start numbering houses for the postie.

The full text of the 1765 Postage Act does not contain any direct reference to house numbering, either introducing or for standardising. The Act enabled plans to measure distances along roads, encouraging house numbering, but the Act didn’t directly require numbering.

So when did the first number appear?

Most likely at the start of the eighteenth century, for this is what The British Postal Museum & Archive says:

The first recorded instance of a street being numbered is Prescot Street in Goodmans Fields in 1708. By the end of the century, the numbering of houses had become well established and seems to have been done on the consecutive rather than the odd and even principle which we have now become familiar.

None of this was regulated and numbering systems varied even in the same street. For example about 1780, Craven Street in the Strand had three sets of numbers. There were irregularities everywhere, and the naming of streets and parts of streets was left to the idiosyncrasy or whim of the owner.

Regulation did not take place until 1855 with the passing of the Metropolitan Management Act. For the first time, the power to control and regulate the naming and numbering of streets and houses were provided for and given to the new Board of Works.

That version can be traced back to the 1708 publication, Hatton’s New View of London, which, using slightly different spelling, recorded that:

In Prescott Street, Goodman’s Fields, instead of signs the houses are distinguished by numbers, as the staircases in the Inns of Court and Chancery.

There are hints that house numbering spread throughout the 18th century, all without that 1765 Postage Act. So his Lordship might not have lived in Number 1, London after all.

Of Alley off Strand

This little alley close to Charing Cross Station commemorates York House which once occupied a 7-acre site overlooking the River Thames.

Originally owned until the Dissolution in 1536 by the Bishops of Norwich, Henry VIII then passed it on to an old friend the Duke of Suffolk and in 1624 the estate eventually came into the possession of George Villiers, The Duke of Buckingham.

Villiers restored the bishop’s old estate and built the magnificent York Watergate which survives marooned in Embankment Gardens.

Villiers was murdered in 1628 by a Puritan fanatic, but the Duke’s wife lived there until she lost the property in the Civil War. Her son, the second Duke, fortuitously fell in love with the daughter of York House’s new owner and on marriage regained his family’s home.

He had a better eye for heiresses than finance, for by 1672 he found himself in hock up to his neck and sold the house to speculators to redevelop the site. The second Duke of Buckingham secured £30,000 for the house and gardens to repay his debts.

But one stipulation of the sale Buckingham insisted upon was that the developer Nicholas Barbon record literally every sound and syllable of his Grace’s name and title; Buckingham Street; Villiers Street; Duke Street and George Street still remain.

But unfortunately, the Burgers of Westminster don’t possess the wit of Nicholas Barbon when he named the streets, for Of Alley has been given the rather prosaic title of York Place.

A footnote: George Villiers, 2nd Duke of Buckingham started the first foxhunt in England, The Bilsdale Hunt in 1668 and later started the Sinnington Hunt in 1680. He died from a chill after digging for a fox above Kirkbymoorside. At his death in 1687, the title again became extinct.

A version of this post was published by CabbieBlog on 28th January 2011

It’s a Corker of a leg

Cork Street is a short thoroughfare in Mayfair lined with art galleries and little else, the street has gained its name from the 1st Earl of Burlington who also happened to be 2nd Earl of Cork in Ireland.

[I]T 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. In 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.

Prosthetic legs

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 to as Peg Legs – a nomenclature attached (no pun) to its owner.

Mr Foote 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.

Cork legs

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

A version of this post was published by CabbieBlog on 22nd November 2013

Cabbie’s Monopoly – Part V

HouseNow we have visited most streets and squares on my Cabbies’ Monopoly board, it’s time now to build a house. The houses in the true 1930s Monopoly fashion should be semi-detached with bay windows with the ubiquitous privet hedge marking their road boundary. The CabbieBlog houses here are just a little grander than your average semi.

Northumberland AvenueNORTHUMBERLAND AVENUE
Northumberland House, the London home of the Percy family; the Dukes of Northumberland demolished in 1874. Standing just south from Trafalgar Square it was the last of the great Strand mansions to succumb. His grace did have another house to fall back on though; Syon House in Isleworth and it was to this estate the giant emblematic Percy Lion – which had stood guard over the main gateway facing the Strand to Northumberland House for over 150 years – was taken. In the 17th century the house formed part of the dowry when the Earl of Suffolk’s daughter married Lord Percy.

Leicester SquareLEICESTER SQUARE
Once one of the biggest houses in London once stood on his large square. Celebrated for its rather dangerous entertainments in 1672 John Evelyn dined here and was beguiled by Richardson “the famous fire-eater, who before us devour’d Brimston on glowing coales, chewing and swallowing hem downe”.

Life here was even more dangerous 100 years later when the father of the future “Mad” King George III, when still the Prince of Wales died after being hit in the throat with a cricket ball. And here’s one for the pub quiz: In 1780 the Toxophilite Society was inaugurated here.

Trafalgar SquareTRAFALGAR SQUARE
The site of the King’s Mews, a vast building in which the Royal Hawks were kept, falconers lodged and daily services held in the “Chapel of the Muwes”. Geoffrey Chaucer once toiled there as a clerk of works. After a fire the mews were rebuilt as stabling during the reign of Elizabeth I. During the civil war the mews became barracks for the Parliamentary Army and after the Battle of Naseby about 4,500 Cavalier prisoners were incarcerated there. In its last years the main building was used as a menagerie and a store for public records, demolished in 1830.

A version of this post was published by CabbieBlog on 15th April 2011

Cabbie’s Monopoly – Part IV

Returning again to the 1930’s Monopoly set that I discovered in the attic. This time it’s all about money ‘Pass Go and Collect £200’, £200 doesn’t seem much today, but remember you can buy Mayfair from the Duke of Westminster for only £400, what a bargain. Assuming you have collected your £200 where do you go to spend your gain, the shops of course.

Regent StreetREGENT STREET
Forget Oxford Street, Regent Street is by far a more elegant place to shop. Designed by John Nash, the original construction with its elegant curves had a covered colonnade for pedestrians to walk under to protect them from the elements as they moved from shop to shop.

It proved rather popular for prostitutes to use as a cat-walk while displaying their wares so it was demolished by 1920. The shop fronts now just look like any other row of shops. Hamleys would look rather interesting for the children with the “ladies” parading outside.

Bond StreetBOND STREET
Yes you are right Bond Street doesn’t exist. Old Bond Street is only 14 years older than its newer sibling, both acquired the aristocratic seal of approval when the Duchess of Devonshire in 1784, after a fit of pique, organised a boycott against the hitherto smarter shops of Covent Garden.

Modern Bond Streets are packed with designer label flagship stores and jewellers which have become a favourite with smash and grab thieves on motorbikes. Separating the two streets is pedestrianised and has a sculpture depicting Churchill and Roosevelt seated on a bench.

PiccadillyPICCADILLY
Named after the curious ruff much favoured by Elizabethans, the starched collar was called a piccadill. J. C. Cording the suppliers of tweed and cords to the huntin’, fishin’ and shootin’ set is part owned by “Slowhand” himself Eric Clapton. Waterstones opposite was once Simpsons of Piccadilly department store and Jeremy Lloyd having worked as a shop assistant there based his 1970 comedy Are You Being Served on his experience. While Fortnum & Mason was started by William Fortnum Queen Anne’s footman who saved his pennies to start the store by selling cut price candles to the palace.

MayfairMAYFAIR
The Americans wanted to buy the freehold to build their embassy, but the Grosvenor family never sell, all are leased. When told they couldn’t buy the land they insisted and petitioned Parliament; the Grosvenor family were heavily leaned on but all to no avail. Then the Duke thought of a good compromise. He told them that if they were to return to the Grosvenor family all those lands in the United States stolen after the American War of Independence including Maine and New York he would allow them to buy their site on the west side of Grosvenor Square, they backed down.

A version of this post was published by CabbieBlog on 1st April 2011