What’s In A Name

One of the streets we walk along on our tour of Jack the Ripper’s London is Middlesex Street. Until the 19th century this was known as Petticoat Lane. But then the powers that were decided that the reference to ladies undergarments was a no no and the name was duly changed to Middlesex Street.

But, cast your net across London and you come up with some terrific street names, many of which reflect the history of what went on in them in the Middle Ages.


Take Cheapside for example. This busy thoroughfare, which runs from the Bank of England towards St. Paul’s Cathedral,  is so named because it was once the main market place of the medieval city. The word Cheap was always synonymous with a market and reflects the days when you didn’t go shopping but rather you went Cheping.

The streets that run off Cheapside are, therefore, named after the commodities that were once sold in them and are, historically speaking, self explanatory. It isn’t difficult to figure out that Milk Street, Wood Street and Bread Street were simply the streets wherein these items were sold. Others might take a little thinking about. Friday Street, for example, was where the fish was sold in the days when the eating of meat was forbidden on Fridays and so fish was consumed instead.


Meanwhile, several of London’s street names border on the risque, whilst others are out and out obscene and leave little to the imagination.

Take the romantically sounding Love Lane, close to London Wall. According to the 17th century historian, John Stowe, this was “so called because of wantons” – in other words it was a red light district.

The same applies to nearby Cock Lane, which has the salubrious distinction of being the City’s first legalised red light thoroughfare and which is, therefore, named accordingly!


Heading out east in the City, you encounter the, seemingly innocuous, Sherborne Lane. But dig a little into its history and you will discover that in the 13th century it laboured under the far less salubrious name of  Shitteborwelane, meaning it was a public privy! Later it became known as Shiteburn Lane, which just about says it all.


Just off Long Lane – the road that runs alongside Smithfield Meat Market – you will find a tiny passageway from which the name is actually missing.

This is because whenever the sign with the name on it is put up it doesn’t take long for somebody to get the irresistible urge to steal it. Personally I can’t see the attraction. Why anybody would want to steal a sign that reads “Back Passage” is beyond me.


Elsewhere, you can, should the mood take you, pay a visit to Clitterhouse Road in NW2, Cumming Street in Islington, Penistone Road in SW16, Fine Bush Lane in Ruislip, Upper Butts in Brentford and Hooker’s Road in Waltham Forest.

Charles Dickens, in the Sketches By Boz, once remarked “what inexhaustible food for speculation do the streets of London afford!”

And, although looking for the double entendres that are found in so many of London’s street names was probably not what he had in mind, it cannot be denied that the names of many of the streets of London certainly give us 21st century residents plenty to smirk about and speculate upon!