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.


20 comments on “Ditch The Whores And Leather : How London Is Falsely Renamed”

  1. Simon says:

    I hate the renaming of pubs. When your reading historical accounts of places one of the main ‘characters’ has been the pub. Change the name and you loose the character of an area. Many of the new names are completely meaningless as far as the area they serve and are easily forgotten. Our history is being erased one pub sign at a time.

  2. Jo W says:

    Oh! How I agree with you Admin. Developers,please leave our district names alone! How are we to find anywhere when the names keep changing. Writing as a lifelong passenger on buses, changing the names of pubs only brings confusion,especially when you consider that most London bus routes and timetables use the nearest pub as a location for stops. The Bricklayers Arms on Old Kent Road was pulled down to make way for a flyover years and years ago now,but the name still remains for the area and the bus stops. PS.But,as someone who enjoys a snifter or two,I think I’d rather a change of name than the closure of the pub altogether!!

  3. Dan Terrell says:

    Everyone, but me apparently, 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. Okay, I’ll say it: Dah.
    If I lean an ear close to the screen would someone whisper the notorious street’s mortifying name?

  4. C Falconer says:

    @ Dan Terrell – I believe it was Grape-cant Alley – or something reasonably similar

  5. John says:

    Like Dan I have no idea what street in Southwark Chris is talking about. “Everyone” clearly means “everyone” in a certain city. And while I’m complaining: When will you ever give up on using New York City as your scapegoat for everything that is supposedly ruining London? The antiseptic and illogical real estate naming habit is a widespread thing over here in the US and has been going on since the 1970s. And I don’t go blaming NYC for a building up the street from my workplace that is blandly called 900 North. I can find hundreds of examples of poorly named buildings, neighborhoods and subdevelopments in any city, suburb or rural area all over our country. Not that I’m defending the practice at all. I can’t stand passing little communities inanely named something like “Monte Verde” when no mountains are in sight and all greenery has been replaced by concrete sidewalks.

  6. admin says:

    Fair point, John. I just don’t trust any city that numbers its streets. I’m as guilty as anyone of being nostalgic; I loved the old rundown NYC just as much as my New York friends wish London was still filled with Dickensian cobbles. You’re right, of course; bland naming is universal – but why?

  7. pheeny says:

    @Dan and Falconer – “Gripecount lane”? 😉

  8. pheeny says:

    I was very sorry when they took a sign down locally for “Smack Alley” – “Smack” as in sailing boat OF COURSE

  9. Dan Terrell says:

    Thanks C. Falconer:
    But Grape-cant Alley? Really? Google is beside itself and in four pages has referred me to raisins, grapes, dogs poisoned from eating same, wine making, etc.
    I’m metaphorically hanging onto a passing oak-aging barrel here and floating toward the Themes and no more the wiser. Now, this is Deep English.
    I was hoping for something more atmospheric like say Dollymops Lane, so named because it housed the well-known 17th century shop Dollymops, brushes, brooms & buffing. “Gentlemen’s buttons well polished on premises.”

  10. Vivienne says:

    I do know a couple of pubs that have reclaimed their old names: The Roebuck in Chiswick and The Swan in Hammersmith which is a move in the right direction. They have tried to name that area just east of Holborn some sort of Middle Central area, a bit on the SoHo lines, but I hope that doesn’t catch on. Don’t even mention gated communities!

  11. Dan Terrell says:

    Thames, Thames, Thames, gurr. What’s up with that?
    Pheeny – your suggestion “Gripecount Lane” got me to Wikipedia and that sent me to a much more satisfying Middle Ages lane. Thank you.

  12. snowy says:

    Things don’t change much over seventy years do they.

    A American rolls up looking to have ‘his frustration relieved’ and gets mobbed with offers.

    It must be the uniform. *sigh*


  13. DavidF says:

    The other thing that’s annoying me is renaming small clusters of streets “such-and-such village”, when quite often the only thing that delineates the area from the surrounding urban/suburban streets is a bit of block paving if you’re lucky, some “heritage” cast iron bins, but primarily a collection of enamelled signs on lamp posts proudly telling that this is such-and-such village. So not content with removing genuine character, developers, estate agents and local authorities are creating areas of ersatz character.

    Perhaps we should start the Campaign for Real Places.

  14. Helen Martin says:

    A new area was developed in Vancouver, somewhat like the new area in Kings Cross and they dove into history, sometimes apocryphal, for names so we have Leg in Boot Square because apparently a leg was found wearing a boot, probably an earlier example of our problem of feet being found in running shoes. There are others but it’s not my neighbourhood and I’ve always been suspicious of the names because it seemed like an attempt to create an historic tradition that didn’t exist. I deeply dislike numbered buildings and New Westminster takes numbering of streets to the ultimate both the streets *and* the avenues are numbered.

  15. skelly says:

    I work for the local authority, whose job it is to officially assign these new addresses, and while we try our hardest to get developers to reflect the history of a site with their names, it’s an uphill battle. all we can do is encourage historic references, and enforce the guidelines from the Fire Brigade and Royal Mail (so they can find a site quickly and without confusion). other than that it’s the developers choice I’m afraid! there are some amazing names though. other than the aforementioned GC Lane (also once off Cannon Street in the City), there are endless quirky names – Petty Wales, French Ordinary Court, and every year the street sign for Back Passage gets nicked at christmas party time… also, a lot of the current names have evolved from much more unsavoury beginnings (Sherborne = Sh1teburn etc).

    at the end of the day though, it’s all to do with what adds the most value to a property, whether it’s a modern/corporate name, or a lucky number (you’d be amazed how many far eastern owners request number changes to something considered more auspicious). be assured though, we’re trying our best to keep it interesting.

  16. Alan Morgan says:

    The notorious back alley was for many centuries called Kristen Stewart. It was a complete coincidence as you might imagine being where ladies of a religious bent (Kristen being ‘follower of Christ’) would tempt puritans once upon a time towards the big wigs and lack of chin delights of the restoration under the Stewart monarchy. But that didn’t stop Twilight fans from kicking up such a hissy fit that it had to be changed.

  17. Mim says:

    I hate pub renamings – it takes away our history.

    I also dislike the renaming of areas. I grew up near Norwich, and used to love wandering around Upper Goat Lane and that part of the city. Since I moved away the whole area has been ‘rebranded’ The Lanes and is now a magnet for twee, and has lost a lot of its shabby, disreputable appeal…

  18. C Falconer says:

    Sorry, I was being overly prim – 1st ‘a’ = ‘o’, 2nd ‘a’ = ‘u’

  19. Helen Martin says:

    Mim, that’s gentrification for you. Shabby and disreputable = rundown and dangerous in the civic mind. Homelessness increases after a shabby are is re-built. On the other hand, a city receives more property tax from new, upmarket homes and businesses than from older, rundown ones. A new owner has the right to call his business what he likes but why would anyone want to rename a pub – unless it has a really unsavoury reputation.

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