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London Place Names: Some Origins

From Garlick Hill to Pratt’s Bottom, London is full of weird and wonderful place names. We’ve just published the second edition of A.D. Mills’s A Dictionary of London Place Names, so I thought I would check out the roots of some of London’s most famous addresses.

Abbey Road (in St. John’s Wood): Developed in the early 19th century from an earlier track, and so named from the medieval priory at Kilburn to which it led. Chiefly famous of course as the name of the 1969 Beatles album recorded here at the EMI studios.

Baker Street: Recorded thus in 1794, named after the builder William Baker who laid out the street in the second half of the 18th century on land leased from the estate in Marylebone of Henry William Portman. Remarkably enough, Baker Street’s most famous resident (at No. 221B) was a purely fictional character, the detective Sherlock Holmes created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in 1887!

Buckingham Palace: The present palace stands on the site of Buckingham House 1708, so named after John Sheffield, Duke of Buckingham, who had it built in 1702 (on land partly leased from the Crown) and whose heir sold it to George III in 1762. This building was rebuilt and much enlarged in the 1820s and 1830s according to the designs of John Nash and Edward Blore, becoming Queen Victoria’s favourite town residence when she came to the throne in 1837. The site was earlier known as Mulbury Garden feild 1614, The Mulbury garden 1668, the walled garden having been planted with thousands of mulberry trees by James I who apparently had the grand idea of establishing a silk industry in London.

Canary Wharf: The grand commercial development with its massive 850ft tower (the highest building in the country), begun in 1987, takes its name from a modest fruit warehouse! Canary Wharf was the name given to a warehouse built in 1937 for the Canary Islands and Mediterranean fruit trade of a company called ‘Fruit Lines Ltd’. The name of the Spanish island of Canary (i.e. Gran Canaria, this giving its name to the whole group of ‘Canary Islands’) is of course also of interest: it is derived (through French and Spanish) from Latin Canaria insula, that is ‘isle of dogs’ (apparently with reference to the large dogs found here).

Drury Lane: Recorded thus in 1598, otherwise Drewrie Lane in 1607, named from Drurye house 1567, the home of one Richard Drewrye 1554. The surname itself is interesting; it derives from Middle English druerie ‘a love token or sweetheart’. The lane was earlier called Oldewiche Lane 1393, street called Aldewyche 1398, that is ‘lane or street to Aldewyche (‘the old trading settlement’).

Knightsbridge: Cnihtebricge c.1050, Knichtebrig 1235, Cnichtebrugge 13th century, Knyghtesbrugg 1364, that is ‘bridge of the young men or retainers,’ from Old English cniht (genitive case plural –a) and brycg. The bridge was where one of the old roads to the west crossed the Westbourne stream. The allusion may simply be to a place where cnihtas congregated: bridges and wells seem always to have been favourite gathering places of young people. However there is possibly a more specific reference to the important cnihtengild (‘guild of cnihtas‘) in 11th century London  and to the limits of its jurisdiction (certainly Knightsbridge was one of the limits of the commercial jurisdiction of the City in the 12th century).

Piccadilly: This strange-looking street name has rather a bizarre origin. It seems that the name first appears as Pickadilly Hall in 1623, otherwise Pickadel Hall in 1636, as a (no doubt humorous) nickname for a house belonging to one Robert Baker, a successful tailor who had made his fortune from the sale of piccadills or piccadillies, a term used for various kinds of collars, highly fashionable at the time, for both men and women. The name of the hall was then transferred to the district (as in Pickadillie 1627, Pickadilla 1633) and to the street (as in Piccadilly Street 1673, Pickadilly 1682). Piccadilly Circus was created in 1819 at the junction with Regent Street which was then being built.

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  1. Theatre Royal Drury Lane

    Some 56 years after Drewrie Lane became Drury Lane, the Theatre Royal Drury Lane was completed. The oldest theatre in London is the oldest in the world. It showed it’s first theatrical performance in 1663 and is said to be the most haunted theatre in England and home to a number of thespian ghosts!

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