The late James Payn, to whom London stood in much the same relation as a flower stands to the botanist, and who wrote in his own genial and inimitable style upon almost every feature of the metropolis, did not pass over the question of how London streets got their names, a question which must have puzzled many. “Who is it,” he says, in his essay entitled, “Double Glo’ster,” “that stands godfather to the streets of London? Who is it that, in so many cases, in answer to the solemn question, ‘Name this street?’ pronounces, ‘Glo’ster, Glo’ster.’ I suppose it is some assemblage, whose heads, being laid together, are said to constitute a board. A Board of Works, is it? Good. Then all I have to say with respect to that august body is this: that it is not a Board of Works of the Imagination. Its total want of originality in nomenclature is most remarkable.” This accusation is confirmed by Mr. Augustus Hare, who, after devoting much attention to the subject, has stated that the number of streets bearing the name of King is ninety-five, of Queen ninety-nine, and of Prince seventy-eight. While even these records are surpassed by the Georges, which number a hundred and nine, by the News, of which there are a hundred and sixty-six, and the Churches, of which there are a hundred and fifty-one examples.

These disposed of, the question of street names becomes interesting. It is in the City especially that histories are attached to such names. Some are more or less obvious, many being arrived at by the simple process of transferring to the street or court the name of its principal tavern. Bird-in-Hand-court is an instance. Others, such as Birchin-lane, take their title from the builder. Birchin-lane was built by one Bircham. But these are, as it were, merely the easy exercises. To him who makes it his hobby—and there are few more fascinating—to trace each name he finds to its source, difficulties soon begin to present themselves. Stow, the earliest of such searchers, was wont to adopt the simple expedient of guessing, when the stream he explored dried up before the source was reached. Lothbury, for instance, clearly baffled him. He had no shred of evidence to go upon. He was lost. But, far from admitting such a state of affairs, he plunged boldly into the thicket before him, and, forcing a way through the brambles, claimed to have hit upon the true path. Lothbury, said he, was the name derived from the loathing caused in the minds of the passers-by by the sound of the workers in brass and copper, who carried on their business. There is something almost magnificent in this wild, reckless guess, but it is not to be accepted. The modern view is that the street dates back to a certain Albert, a Lotharingian, or, as he would be styled, Albert Lotering. He, it is supposed, owned a manor in this quarter. Hence Lotering’s Bury. From which the transition to Lothbury is not too difficult.

Another pitfall is offered by Sermon-lane. The natural conclusion is that in days gone by it was a species of open-air chapel, and the imagination can conjure up pictures, all fascinating and all more or less incorrect, of wild-eyed, fanatical preachers preaching the word to picturesque, and, for the most part, unruly mobs. Sermon-lane, however, has no reference to ecclesiastical oratory. It is an abbreviation of Sheremonier-lane, the locality of the sheremongers, the men who clipped (or sheared) bullion into shape for coining at the Old Exchange, which was hard by. Transition forms of the word were sarmonneris and sermoneris. Wardrobe-place at first appears obscure. It is so called from the fact that Sir John Beauchamp, Warden of the Cinque Ports, owned a house there, which was converted by Edward the Fourth into a repository of State garments and Royal robes worn at different times and occasions in the City. Bevis Marks is chiefly interesting from the fact that Mr. Sampson Brass and his amiable sister Sally lived there. The name is derived from Bury’s Limits, and indicates the borders of territory pertaining to the town house of the Abbot of Bury Saint Edmunds. Bury’s becomes Bevis by the permutation of r into v; Marks is akin to marches, the equivalent of borders or limits. It is interesting to note, in passing, that the title marquess meant originally “keeper of the marches,” and that it was his duty to defend the frontier against aggressive neighbours.

The majority of what are to the searcher after interesting names the gems of the collection are hidden away in odd corners in the City. It needs an almost contemptuous familiarity with the City before one can find Budge Row. Once found, it is interesting. It was here that the dealers in budge dwelt, as, indeed, the name implies. Budge was a fine lambskin fur, much used in days gone by as edging of scholars’ gowns. In the same way as marquess is derived from marches, so the word budget meant originally a bag made of lambskin or leather. Bull and Mouth-street, which lies in Aldersgate, was once Boulogne Mouth (or Harbour), and owes its name to an event of some historical interest, the capture of Boulogne by his bluff Majesty King Henry the Eighth in the year 1544. It has been suggested that the correct name of the street should be Bowl-and-Mouth, but this is probably an error. As a final example, Canon-alley. This alley, in St. Paul’s Churchyard, formed the eastern boundary of the old College of Minor Canons, and was the site of one of the six gates in the enclosure of the Cathedral territory.

Yes, the City is an interesting place, and a place which, as usually happens, the natives appreciate less than the chance visitor. To work in an office from nine till six leaves the City man little leisure to look around him and discover what an enthralling spot it is in which he spends his life. He realises vaguely something of this, and wishes, as he hurries to catch his suburban train at St. Paul’s or Ludgate-hill that he had more time to devote to the matter. He resolves that when that glad day arrives, which the Ancients called the Kalends of Greece and which we know as “some day or other,” he will take a holiday and “do” the City thoroughly.


Unsigned article in the Globe; title and date entered by Wodehouse
in his Money Received for Literary Work notebook.


Editor’s note:
Wodehouse claimed that he “dug these [turnovers] out of reference books”, and we have found some of his source material. The James Payn essay is online; the Augustus Hare quote is from the introduction to his Walks in London. Though it mentions only a few of the remaining items in Wodehouse’s essay, more interesting material on this subject can be found in “London Street Nomenclature” in The Book of Days: A Miscellany of Popular Antiquities, edited by Robert Chambers and published by W. and R. Chambers in 1864, a source to which Wodehouse would return for most of the Globe turnover columns he would write in the ensuing months.

Neil Midkiff