When a city has been around since Roman times, it tends to develop some very unique names for the city streets. Each era of London’s history has left its mark on the various streets, avenues, lanes, and ways. Here is a small selection of unique London street and place names and their fascinating histories.
The name of this street might be traced back to Anglo-Saxon days, where a usage was a strip of grass between fields. One can assume this particular strip of grass wasn’t quite straight.
Jerusalem Passage (see picture above)
Not dedicated to the hymn or a road used by crusaders, Jerusalem Passage was named for an old public house, St. John of Jerusalem, which stood at the northeast corner until 1760.
Not to be confused with the classic David Hasselhoff television series (or that crappy modern remake), this street was supposedly the one that knights would take from the Tower of London to Smithfield, where jousts were held.
King Charles II loved the ladies and had several mistresses at court. “Fitz” was a term that meant “illegitimate son of” and “Fitz-roy” is the bastard son of a king. Many of the streets surrounding Fitzroy Square were named after titles created for the many bastard children fathered between Charles and his mistress Barbara Villers, such as Euston, Warren, and Grafton.
“Cheap” doesn’t describe the costs of everything along this street. Instead, it’s an Old English word meaning “market” (spelled “chepe”). Bread Street, Poultry Street, and Ironmonger Lane were nearby, as well as Stew Lane, which was actually a place for brothels and not food.
Ha Ha Road
A ha-ha is a dry, grassy ditch that serves as a boundary for country estates. The ditch is considered less of an eyesore than a fence while keeping your neighbour’s cattle from wandering onto your property. Really harkens back to a time in the city’s history when you had to worry about livestock eating your grass.
Actually refers to the Bretons who lived there, an ethnic group originating in Brittany, France. The district was located just north of the London wall. As the rich residents slowly abandoned the neighbourhood, it became the home of many booksellers for a time. The street is mentioned in Charles Dickens’ novel, “Great Expectations”, as the location of Mr. Jaggers’ law office, a place that connects many of the characters.
Great Scotland Yard
Well before the name was associated with law enforcement and the Metropolitan Police, Scotland Yard was an appendage of the royal palace of Whitehall. The buildings there housed the Kings of Scotland and other Scottish dignitaries when they came to visit court. Over time, Whitehall became full of government offices, and eventually the original Metropolitan Police Commissioner had his headquarters at 4 Whitehall Place, the beginning of the street’s ties to the Met.
You know, the one the Muffin Man lives on? Well, it isn’t named for him, but for the Drury family who once had an estate here. It gained fame as a street loaded with theatres, the most famous of which is Theatre Royal, which was rebuilt three times following various fires and demolitions.
It might make you think of colorful clothing or maybe some kind of ancient fashion or garment district. Well, no such luck. Its name originates from the time when the Romans founded the city and is related to the Cloaca Maxima, one of the world’s earliest sewer systems in Rome. You better believe that back when the city was first established, this street didn’t smell very good.
French Ordinary Court
What is now a very very short street in London used to house a French “Ordinary” restaurant sometime before the Great Fire. An “ordinary” doesn’t mean that the food was regular French fare, but that all the meals were at a fixed price.
There seems to be no explanation for how this street in Tooting (another funny place) got its name, but if you’re familiar with British slang, you’ll know that bollocks is another word for testicles, as well as being a statement of untruth (see, “bulls**t”).
Shoulder of Mutton Alley
This alleyway found in the area of Tower Hamlets references a popular dish. Mutton is actually sheep’s meat, though there are different terms for sheep meat at different ages. A sheep is typically a lamb before the age of one. A hogget refers to a juvenile sheep. Meanwhile, the term “mutton” is reserved for meat from an adult sheep. While this area once may have been known for restaurants, it now serves as a place for young artists.
Shooter’s Hill Road
The street and ward of Greenwich it can be found in take their name from being a place for archery practice in the Middle Ages.
Bleeding Heart Yard
No compassion or deadly danger on this street, though an urban legend states that the area was named for the murder of Lady Elizabeth Hatton. Bleeding Heart Yard is a cobblestone courtyard that supposedly drew its name from a tavern of the same name. Charles Dickens references it in Little Dorrit as the home of the Plornish family. Today, the Bleeding Heart Bistro is there serving French cuisine.
Lamb’s Conduit Street
Another sheep-related street, this one doesn’t actually get its name from the farm animal, but William Lambe, who gave £1,500 to have the road built as a conduit to access water. Lambe also donated 120 pails to poor women so that they could have water for cooking, washing, and bathing.
You might think it’s got a pretty tasty name, but this street is actually the location where the Great Fire of London kicked off. Its origins are anything but delicious, as the name derives from the entrails and organs that would fall off butchers’ carts as they headed from Eastcheap to the River Thames to dump their waste on barges.
What is now an incredibly rude name for a street actually served a purpose when it first got its name. Even back in the Middle Ages, plenty of towns and cities had a red-light district, including London. The C word, of course, is a pretty offensive word used to describe female body parts. A name like this implied this was a part of town with many houses of ill-repute. Other towns with this name have since changed it to “Gropecount”, “Grapecount”, “Grape Lane”, and more.
Not really a name belittling France, it is believed to originate from a group of French Huguenots who settled in the area. Huguenots were French Protestants who fled their native land due to religious persecution. Today, the Ministry of Justice has its headquarters there.
Hanging Sword Alley
Named after a house called the Hanging Sword mentioned in records as having been there in 1574. The character of Jerry Crutchers lived here in Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities.
One of the most famous streets in the world, for more than 300 years it has been the home of some of the most powerful leaders in Britain. Its name comes from the man who built it, Sir George Downing, who was politically savvy enough to have worked under both Oliver Cromwell and King Charles II. He built up townhouses along the street in the 1680s and over the centuries, the homes kept being bought up by the government and transformed into official residences and government offices.
Angel is just a bit north of Central London and like some of the streets in previous articles, it was named after a pub. The site of the Angel Inn had been in the neighbourhood since the 16th century and today is a historic building that sits on the corner of Islington High Street and Pentonville Road in Islington. The current building was constructed in 1899 and at one point was set to be demolished, but that never happened.
During Victorian times, seven cemeteries were built in the outskirts of London to alleviate parish cemetery overcrowding. Dubbed the “Magnificent Seven”, Nunhead is considered the least famous among them, but its name is no less unique. The cemetery’s name comes from the fact that it’s located in Nunhead, which itself comes from a pub named The Nun’s Head. As you might expect, the name comes from the actual beheading of a nun that occurred during Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries.
Located in Richmond, Greater London, this stately home was completed in 1775 by Richard Milne. Though the reason behind the naming of the house is lost to time, its status as a Grade I listed building has attracted several notable residents over the years. Actor Sir John Mills lived there and his wife was inspired by the sound the wind made going around the house to write The Whistle Down the Road. Ronnie Wood of the Rolling Stones lived there for a number of years (with Keith Richards staying in the guest house for a time) before selling it to Pete Townsend of The Who. Pete was less enthused about the sound of the wind and installed new windows because the noise was “driving me crazy.”
Located within the walled section of the city that is the City of London, Postman’s Park is one of the largest in that part of London. It was named due to its proximity to the former site of the General Post Office. The interior of the park contains the Memorial to Heroic Self-Sacrifice, dedicated to ordinary people who put their lives on the line to save others, which was built by George Frederic Watts in 1900.
The Hung Drawn and Quartered
Describing itself as “the jewel in the crown of Tower Hill pubs”, the name comes from the style of punishment for those persons convicted of treason. As you might expect, the condemned was hung, then disemboweled and beheaded, and finally, his body was chopped into four parts to be placed in areas of prominent display as a warning to any would-be traitors. Today, the pub is practically owned by the brewery Fullers and serves a selection of their ales. It’s also close to the Tower of London.
The unofficial name for the skyscraper at 122 Leadenhall Street, the name “Cheesegrater” comes from its distinct wedge shape. Set to be completed this year, it was designed by Richard Rogers and counts several insurance companies amongst its first tenants, including Aon, which is moving its global headquarters from Chicago to London.
Constructed in 1811 on the London Docks, this is a place that does exactly what it says on the tin. It was built originally to house tobacco imported to Britain and now exists as a Grade I listed building. At the north entrance to the building is a seven-foot tall statue of a boy standing in front of a tiger. The story has it that in the late 1800s, Charles Jamrach owned the world’s largest exotic pet store near Tobacco Dock and one day, one of his tigers got out. A boy in the street attempted to go up and pet the tiger thinking it was the biggest cat he’d ever seen, only to be carried off by the tiger. Fortunately for the boy (if not the gene pool), Jamrach came out of his shop to chase the tiger down and wrestle the boy away from it (earning him much manliness).
A town located in East London, the name comes from the Anglo-Saxon word “berecingas”, which means either “the settlement of the descendants of Bereca” or “the settlement by the birch trees” (take your pick). Its alleged location as the site of a medieval insane asylum is said to be the origin of the phrase “barking mad”.