How London's Alleyways Got Their Names

By Rebecca Martin Last edited 21 months ago
How London's Alleyways Got Their Names

London is criss-crossed with passageways and alleyways, which can be great for shortcuts and often come with intriguing names. So what stories are behind these names?

Frying Pan Alley

Photo: Tanya Nagar

This passageway once housed a shop known for specialising in pots and pans of every shape and size. Suspended from chains high above the shop front was the sign, a huge cast iron frying pan.

A window shopper was once whacked on the head by this pan as it dropped down and nearly flattened him. From that time on, people walked by the shop on the opposite side of the path in an attempt to avoid another incident. Locals called the place Frying Pan Alley and the name stuck.

Passing Alley

Photo: LondonSLR

Originally called Pissing Alley, the name was considered too vulgar for the prudish Victorians, so they simply changed the ‘i’ for an ‘a’.

There were dozens of open public conveniences around the City. All of these have now either disappeared, or have had their names changed beyond association.

Hanging Sword Alley

This ominous passage just off Fleet Street was almost certainly named after a fencing and sword fighting school.

It was also known as Blood Bowl Alley, located as it was in Alsatia — an area exempt from City laws after the Reformation, and a known haunt of dangerous criminals. Blood Bowl House sat on the thoroughfare — and with a name like that, we won't be delving too far into the history of that particular house.

Bear Alley

Bear Alley is known to have existed before the Great Fire of 1666 and probably took its name from the Bear Inn, which was nearby.

The Bear was a popular tavern name when bear baiting was popular. Tavern keepers would promote these tournaments in their yards in order to poach customers from other inns.

Cardinal Cap Alley

Photo: roll the dice

This religious-sounding alley has several possible explanations for its name. One is that it actually took its name from a brothel, possibly named for Henry Beaufort, Bishop of Winchester. This might sound an unlikely pairing but the popular brothels of Bankside, which flourished for centuries, were leased from the Bishops of Winchester.

Shortly after Henry VIII had cut all Papal connections, the site was taken over by an inn known as the Cardinal's Hat.

Catherine Wheel Alley

Photo: John Willoughby

One of the narrowest in London, this once crime-ridden alleyway is named after the Catherine Wheel pub, which was reputedly the haunt of notorious highwayman thief Dick Turpin. The pub stood for 300 years before it was destroyed by fire in 1895.

A Catherine wheel, or breaking wheel, was an instrument of torturous execution, originally associated with Saint Catherine of Alexandria.

The name was changed at one point to the Cat and Wheel Alley in order to placate the Puritans who objected to its association with the 9th century saint.

Cecil Court

Photo: fotofrysk

Now lined with antique bookstores, Cecil Court first appeared in the late 17th century. To this day, it is still owned by the Cecil family of Hatfield House in Hertfordshire, the descendants of Robert Cecil. Cecil was given the title of Earl of Salisbury by James I for his role in helping the transition from the house of Tudor to the Stuarts.

It was the first London address for Mozart and his family in 1764, where he supposedly composed his first symphony. Long-term residents of the flats above Cecil Court include T.S. Eliot and Sir John Gielgud.

Artillery Passage

This Spitalfields alleyway is named after the Gentlemen of the Artillery Garden, an old military training ground that stood on the site when it was just fields outside the city walls.

In 1547, a charter from Henry VIII stated that defence was to be increased and permission was given for shooting of longbows, crossbows and hand guns in this area for training purposes. The Artillery Barracks that were then built on these grounds gave rise to the numerous places in the area being called Artillery, including Artillery Passage.

Change Alley

Change Alley was originally called Exchange Alley, due to the Royal Exchange on the opposite side of Cornhill. It got a reputation for housing the hottest trend in the 17th century: coffee houses.

Robin's, Garraway's and Jonathon's coffee houses opened in the alley. Wine merchants would meet at Garraway’s, and Jonathon’s welcomed dealers who bought and sold stock when they were snubbed by the Royal Exchange in 1698. From these meetings of buyers and sellers, the Stock exchange was born.

All three of the Alley's coffee houses, along with 100 houses, were destroyed in the Cornhill fire of 1748.

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Last Updated 31 August 2016