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Stories That Words Tell Us By Elizabeth O'Neill Characters: 18610

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04

It is not only in the names of continents, countries, and towns that stories of the past can be read. The names of the old streets and buildings (or even of new streets which have kept their old names) in our old towns are full of stories. Especially is this true about London, the centre of the British Empire, and almost the centre of the world's history. It will be interesting not only to little Londoners, but to other children as well, to examine some of the old London names, and see what stories they can tell.

Naturally the most interesting names of all are to be found in what we now call "the City," meaning the centre of London, which was at one time all the London there was.

We have seen that London was in the time of the Britons just a fort, and that it became important in Roman times, and a town grew up around it. But this town in the Middle Ages, and even so late as the eighteenth century, was not at all like the London we know to-day. London now is really a county, and stretches away far into four counties; but medi?val London was like a small country town, though a very important and gay and busy town, because it was the capital.

Many of the names in the City take us back to the very earliest days of the capital. This part of London stands on slightly rising ground, and near the river Thames, just the sort of ground which early people would choose upon which to build a fortress or a village. The names of two of the chief City streets, the Strand and Fleet Street, help to show us something of what London was like in its earliest days. A few years ago, in a famous case in a court of law, one of the lawyers asked a witness what he was doing in the Strand at a certain time. The witness, a witty Irishman, answered with a solemn face, "Picking seaweed." Everybody laughed, because the idea of picking seaweed in the very centre of London was so funny. But a strand is a shore, and when the name was given to the London Strand it was not a paved street at all, but the muddy shore of the river Thames.

Then Fleet Street marks the path by which the little river Fleet ran into the Thames. The river had several tributaries, which were covered over in this way, and several of them are used as sewers to carry away the sewage of the city. There is a Fleet Street, too, in Hampstead, in the north-west of London, and this marks the beginning of the course of the same little river Fleet which got its water from the high ground of Hampstead.

This river has given us still another famous London name. It flowed past what is now called King's Cross, and here its banks were so steep that it was called Hollow, or Hole-bourne, and from this we get the name Holborn.

The City being the centre of London had a certain amount of trading and bargaining from the earliest times. In those times there were no such things as shops. People bought and sold in markets, and the name of the busy City street, Cheapside, reminds us of this. It was called in early times the Chepe, and took its name from the Old English word ceap, "a bargain."

At the end of Cheapside runs the street called Poultry, and this, so an old chronicler tells us, has its name from the fact that a fowl or poultry market was regularly held there up to the sixteenth century. The name of another famous City street, Cornhill, tells us that a corn market used to be held there. Another name, Gracechurch Street, reminds us of an old grass market. It took its name from an old church, St. Benet Grasschurch, which was probably so called because the grass market was held under its walls.

Smithfield is the great London meat market now; but its name means "smooth field," and in the Middle Ages it was used as a cattle and hay market, and on days which were not market days games and tournaments took place there. Later its name became famous in English history for the "fires of Smithfield," when men and women were burned to death there for refusing to accept the state religion.

Many London names come from churches and buildings which no longer exist. The names help us to picture a London very different from the London of to-day. One of the busiest streets in that part of the City round Fleet Street where editors and journalists, and printers and messengers are working day and night to produce the newspapers which carry the news of the day far and wide over England, is Blackfriars. This is a very different place from the spot where the Dominicans, or "Black Friars," built their priory in the thirteenth century.

In those days the friars chose the busiest parts of the little English towns to build their houses in, so that they could preach and help the people. They thought that the earlier monks had chosen places for their monasteries too far from the people. There were grey friars and white friars, Austin friars and crutched friars, all of whose names remain in the London of to-day.

There were many monasteries and convents in the larger London which soon grew up round the City, and in the City itself we have a street whose name keeps the memory of one convent of nuns. The street called the Minories marks the place where a convent of nuns of St. Clare was founded in the thirteenth century. The Latin name for these nuns is Sorores Minores, or "Lesser Sisters," just as the Franciscans, or grey friars, were Fratres Minores, or "Lesser Brethren." And so from the Latin minores we get the name Minories as the name of a London street, standing where this convent once stood.

The name of the street London Wall reminds us of the time when London was a walled city with its gates, which were closed at night and opened every morning. Many streets keep the names of the old gates, like Ludgate Hill, Aldersgate, Bishopsgate.

The great Tower of London still stands to show us how London was defended in the old feudal days; but Tower Bridge, the bridge which crosses the river at that point, is a modern bridge, built in 1894. The name Cripplegate still remains, and the story it has to tell us is that in the Middle Ages there stood outside the city walls beyond this gate the hospital of St. Giles-in-the-Fields. It was a hospital for lepers; but St. Giles is the patron saint of cripples, and so this gate of the city got the name of Cripplegate, because it was the nearest to the church of the patron saint of cripples.

This church of St. Giles-in-the-Fields no longer remains; but we have St. Martin's-in-the-Fields, to remind us of the difference between Trafalgar Square to-day and its condition not quite two hundred years ago, when this church was built.

It must be remembered that even at the very end of the eighteenth century London was just a tiny town lying along the river. At that time many of the nobles and rich merchants were building their mansions in what is now the West Central district of London. The north side of Queen Square, Bloomsbury, was left open, so that the people who lived there could enjoy the view of the Highgate and Hampstead hills, to which the open country stretched. Even now this end of Queen Square is closed only by a railing, but a great mass of streets and houses stretches far beyond Hampstead and Highgate now.

Trafalgar Square itself got its name in honour of Nelson, the hero of the great victory of Trafalgar. The great column with the statue of Nelson stands in the square.

This brings us to one of the most interesting of old London names. On one side of the square stands Charing Cross, the busiest spot in London. At this point there once stood the last of the nine beautiful crosses which King Edward III. set up at the places where the coffin of his wife, Eleanor, was set to rest in the long journey from Lincolnshire, where she died, to her grave in Westminster Abbey; and so it got its name. A fine modern cross has been set up in memory of Edward's cross, which has long since disappeared.

The district of Westminster takes its name, of course, from the abbey; and the name Broad Sanctuary remains to remind us of the sanctuary in which, as in many churches of the Middle Ages, people could take refuge even from the Law. Covent Garden took its name from a convent garden belonging to the abbey.

One of the oldest parts of London is Charterhouse Square, where, until a year or two ago, there stood the famous boys' school of this name. The school took its name from the old monastery of the Charterhouse, which King Henry VIII. brought to an end because the monks would not own that he was head of the Church instead of the Pope. They suffered a dreadful death, being hanged, drawn, and quartered as traitors. The monastery was taken, like so many others, by the king, and afterwards became a school. But the school was removed in 1872 to an airier district at Godalming. Part of the old building is still used as a boys' day school.

The word Charterhouse was the English name for a house of Carthusians, a very strict order of monks, whose first house was the Grande Chartreuse in France.

Not far from the Charterhouse is Ely Place, with the beautiful old church of St. Ethelreda. This was, in the Middle Ages, a chapel used by the Bishop of Ely when he came to London, and that is how Ely Place, still one of the quietest and quaintest spots in London, got its name.

People who go along Ludgate Hill to St. Paul's must have noticed many curious names. Perhaps the quaintest of all is Paternoster Row. This street, which takes its name from the Latin name of the "Our Father," or Lord's Prayer, got its name from the fact that in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries many sellers of prayer-books and texts collected at this spot, on account of it being near the great church of St. Paul's. Paternoster Row is still full of booksellers.

Ave Maria Lane and Amen Corner, just near, got their names in imitation of Paternoster Row, the Ave Maria, or "Hail, Mary!" being the words used by the angel Gabriel to the Blessed Virgin at the Annunciation, and Amen being, of course, the ending to the paternoster, as to most prayers.

Not far from St. Paul's is the Church of St. Mary-le-Bow. It used to be said that the true Londoner had to be born within the sound of Bow-bells, and the old story tells us that it was these bells which Dick Whittington heard telling him to turn back when he had lost hope of making his fortune, and was leaving London for the country again. The present Church of St. Mary-le-Bow was built by Sir Christopher Wren, the great seventeenth-century architect, who built St. Paul's and several other of the most beautiful London churches after they had been destroyed by the Great Fire of 1666. But underneath the present Church of St. Mary-le-Bow is the crypt, which was not destroyed in the fire. This crypt was built, like the former church, in Norman times, and the church took its name of bow from the arches upon which it was built in the Norman way, it being the first church in London to be built in this way. The church is generally called "Bow Church."

Another famous old London church, the Temple Church, which is now used as the chapel of the lawyers at the Inns of Court, got its name from the fact that it belonged to and was built by the Knights Templars in the twelfth century. These knights were one of those peculiar religious orders which joined the life of a soldier to that of a monk, and played a great part in the Crusades. King Edward III. brought the order to an end, and took their property; but the Temple Church, with its tombs and figures of armoured knights in brass, remains to keep their memory fresh.

We may mention two other names of old London streets which take us back to the Middle Ages. In the City we have the street called Old Jewry, and this reminds us of the time when in all the more important towns of England in the early Middle Ages a part was put aside for the Jews. This was called the Ghetto. The Jews were much disliked in the Middle Ages because of the treatment of Our Lord by their forefathers; but the kings often protected them because, in spite of everything, the Jews grew rich, and the kings were able to borrow money of them. In 1290, however, Edward I. banished all the Jews from England, and they did not return until the days of Cromwell. But the name of the Old Jewry reminds us of the ghetto which was an important part of old London.

Another famous City street, Lombard Street, the street of bankers, got its name from the Italian merchants from Lombardy who set up their business there, and who became the bankers and money-lenders when there were no longer any Jews to lend money to the English king and nobles.

As time went on London began to grow in a way which seemed alarming to the people of the seventeenth century, though even then it was but a tiny town in comparison with the London of to-day. The fashionable people and courtiers began to build houses in the western "suburbs," as they were then called, though now they are looked upon as very central districts. It was chiefly in the seventeenth century that what we now know as the West End became a residential quarter. Some parts of the West End are, of course, still the most fashionable parts of London; but some, like Covent Garden and Lincoln's Inn Fields, have been given over to business.

Most of the best-known names in the West End date from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The most fashionable street of all, Piccadilly, probably got its name from the very fashionable collar called a pickadil (from the Spanish word picca, "a spear") which the fine gentlemen wore as they swaggered through the West End in the early seventeenth century. Pall Mall and the Mall in St. James's Park took their names from a game which was very fashionable after the Restoration, but which was already known in the time of Charles I. The game was called pall-mall, from the French paille-maille. After the Restoration Charles II. allowed the people to use St. James's Park, which was a royal park, and Londoners used to watch respectfully and admiringly as Charles and his brother James played this game.

Spring Gardens, also in St. James's Park, reminds us of the lively spirits of Restoration times. It was so called because of a fountain which stood there, and which was so arranged that when a passer-by trod by accident on a certain valve the waters spurted forth and drenched him. We should not think this so funny now as people did then.

At the same time that the West End was growing, poorer districts were spreading to the north and east of the City. Moorfields (which tells us by its name what it was like in the early London days) was built over. Spitalfields (which took its name from one of the many hospitals which religious people built in and near medi?val London) and Whitechapel also filled up, and became centres of trade and manufacture. The games and sports which amused the people in these poorer quarters were not so refined as the ball-throwing of the princes and courtiers. In the name Balls Pond Road, Islington, we are reminded of the duck-hunting which was one of the sports of the common people.

As time went on and London became larger and more crowded, the fashionable people began to go away each summer to drink the waters at Bath and Tunbridge Wells. But in London itself there were several springs and wells whose waters were supposed to be good for people's health, and these have given us some of the best-known London names. Near Holywell Street there were several of these wells; and along Well Walk, in the north-west suburb of Hampstead, a procession of gaily-dressed people might regularly be seen in Charles II.'s time going to drink the waters. Clerkenwell also took its name from a well which was believed to be medi?val and even miraculous. Bridewell, the name of the famous prison, also came from the name of a well dedicated to St. Bride.

Many of the great streets and squares of the West End of London have taken their names from the houses of noblemen who have lived there, or from the names of the rich owners of property in these parts. Northumberland Avenue, opening off Trafalgar Square, takes its name from Northumberland House, built there in the time of James I. Arundel Street, running down to the Embankment from the Strand, is so called in memory of Arundel House, the home of the Earl of Arundel, which used to stand here. It was there that the famous collection of statues known as the "Arundel Marbles" was first collected. They were presented to Oxford University in 1667.

Just near Charing Cross there is a part of old London called the Adelphi. This district takes its name from a fine group of buildings put up there in the middle of the eighteenth century by the two famous brother architects Robert and William Adam. Adelphi is the Greek word for "brothers," but the name seems very peculiar applied in this way.

The name of Mayfair, the very centre of fashion in the West End, reminds us that in this magnificent quarter of London a fair used to be held in May in the time of Charles II. This gives us an idea of how the district must have changed since then. Farm Street, in Mayfair, has its name from a farm which was still there in the middle of the eighteenth century. The ground is now taken up by stables and coach-houses. Half-Moon Street, another fashionable street running out of Piccadilly, takes its name from a public house which was built on this corner in 1730.

These old names give us some idea of what London was like at different times in the past; but another very interesting group of names are those which are being made in the greater London of to-day. One of the commonest words used by Londoners to-day is the Underground. If an eighteenth-century Londoner could come back and talk to us to-day he would not know what we meant by this word. For the great system of underground railways to which it refers was only made in the later years of the nineteenth century. The Twopenny Tube was the name of one of the first lines of these underground railways. It was so called because the trains ran through great circular tunnels, like the underground railways which connect all parts of London to-day. It has now become quite a habit of Londoners to talk of going "by Tube" when they mean by any of the underground railways.

One of these lines has a very peculiar and rather ugly name. It is called the Bakerloo Railway, because it runs from Baker Street to Waterloo. It certainly makes us think that the Londoners of long ago showed much better taste in the names they invented.

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