Ditch The Whores And Leather : How London Is Falsely Renamed
Last night I passed the Marquis of Granby pub in London’s Cambridge Circus.
Or rather, I didn’t.
Because it has been renamed ‘The Ape & Bird’, which I guess is some kind of pun about neanderthals taking dates there. Admittedly the old name wasn’t much better, but at least there was a historical reason for it.
London’s guilds were created along the Thames, wherever ships arrived bearing imports, and so they bear the names of the industries that sprang up around them – leathersellers, goldsmiths, haberdashers and so on.
Similarly the roads behind the river were synonymous with various goods being unloaded and stored in nearby warehouses, so we got dock streets named Tobacco, Lime, Vinegar, Pearl, Clove, Cork, Mace, Juniper, Oyster, Lavender, Timber and Mutton, while poorer backstreets were named after the industries they housed that nobody wanted to smell, like soap (fat rendering) and tanning (curing hides with dogshit, basically).
The other way in which streets and areas gained their nomenclature was through the estates of the original builders, so Bedford Square, Gloucester Avenue, and near me, many streets and even a pub named Thornhill. In Greenwich the name Vanbrugh will still be found, and here we have a connection with fortunes made through Tate & Lyle sugar, hence the advocation of slavery on board ships carrying cane, the money invested in art and the foundation of the Tate Gallery, which eventually housed the Vanbrugh collection. Everything can be traced far, far back if you bother to look.
Which is why London’s new developers don’t bother. All along the Thames, huge new complexes of apartment buildings are being whacked up. You’d think with such richness beneath each new doorstep it would be time to delve into the history books, unearth the area’s local connections and come up with names redolent of the neighbourhood’s past.
You’d be wrong.
Instead, building after building is copying New York addresses, so we get Number One, Lexicon, City Point, East Central, Upstream or other nonsensical blank titles that only reflect an alpha male attitude that might appeal to single buyers from overseas looking to augment their property portfolios.
I live in an old warehouse, and five years ago we restored its lost name, Albert Dock, to the side of the building. In the 1990s some blocks of flats were added beside us, and we found ourselves having to accept their giant ‘gated community’ barrier across our own entrance. The developers collectively named the blocks Ice Wharf even though it was not a wharf at all but the site of an old factory.
As a lifelong resident of the district I well remember what was there before. It was known as Pleasure Field because of the women who worked on the site, but a recent survey revealed that the renaming of streets formerly associated with prostitution raised property prices by a third. I don’t suppose any of the tenants who moved in there were particularly interested about what went before, and perhaps they’re right not to be.
Everyone knows about a certain notoriously named backstreet in Southwark that really did need to change its name in order to be acceptable in modern times. But many names are changed for no reason. Now the rejuvenated quarter of King’s Cross finds itself needing to name over forty new streets where there were only slums before, so they’ve held an open competition to choose them. Luckily, the area is rich with extraordinary history from the minting of coins to Thomas Hardy, underground rivers, Mary Wollstonecraft, Nell Gwynne, Henry VIII, deer-hunting, pagan sacrifice, clowns, the invention of ice cream, St Petersburg, Merlin and Queen Boadicea.
A new London postcode, NC1, has already been created for the area. But if recent history is anything to go by, the names of the past that could be used will be ignored in favour of non-words like ‘North Central’ and ‘High Point’. I hope not, because each renaming falsifies London history and chips away at its character.