Have you ever dared to walk down Hanging Sword Alley? It is the most euphonious of many narrow passages that lead off from Fleet Street. Had you visited in Georgian times, you might have stopped for some ale at the Knife and Blood Bowl Inn, from whose painted sign the alley presumably gets its name.
London has many evocatively named passages. Explorers might ponder the derivation of French Ordinary Court in Fenchurch Street. Bleeding Heart Yard is a well-known remnant in Farringdon. Pope’s Head Alley (Bank) and Turk’s Head Yard (Clerkenwell) both sound nasty.
The alleys that today criss-cross the City and other parts of London are but a fraction of the vermicelli of passages that once riddled London. A glance at any section of John Rocque’s wonderful map of 1746 shows an absolute warren. The index to that map lists 610 alleys, in a city that was much smaller than our own.
Here are some of the more noteworthy names from that map, now lost to history. Many get their names from local inns:
Moose and Arrow Alley – now Old Castle Street, Whitechapel.
Hand and Pen Court — on the site of the London Metal Exchange, off Fenchurch Street
Naked Boy Court — on College Hill, City
Of Alley — near Strand. One of a group of streets named for the various components of landowner George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham’s name and title. A reference to Of Alley can still be seen on the modern street sign for York Place.
Dunghill Mews – one of several similarly named locations, but this one’s most notable for its meteoric rise; today, the site contains the Canadian High Commission, off Trafalgar Square.
Dog’s Head and Pottage Pot Alley – quite possibly the longest place name in London’s history, this alley was found north of Old Street close to the crossroads with Golden Lane.
Fireball Court — we delved deep into the history of this infernal Houndsditch passage in a previous article.
Whore’s Nest — self-explanatory courtyard in Southwark. Nearby locations include Dirty Lane, Foul Lane and Little Cock Alley.
And then, of course, there were the famous sweary ones. Several towns, including London, had a medieval Gropec*nt Lane, denoting a place of prostitution. One of several in London was situated where today you’ll find the divisive Number 1 Poultry building on Cheapside. Neighbouring alleys were called Bordhawlane and Puppekirtylane (poke skirt lane). Meanwhile, Sherborne Lane, which today runs off King William Street, was originally called Shitteborwelane thanks to the vast amounts of ordure it once contained.
Image by BethPH in the Londonist Flickr pool.