The Streets Of London – Part Fifty Two
January 12, 2017
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Middlesex Street, E1
London was always a vibrant centre for trade and was characterised by street markets where local residents could buy and sell their wares. Alas, very few of them remain today but one that is still very much alive and kicking and a magnet for tourists is Petticoat Lane market. But if you get out your battered edition of the London A to Z or search on Google Maps you will not locate it because there is no longer a street by the name of Petticoat Lane. The street running from Bishopsgate in the west to Botolph Street in the east was renamed Middlesex Street as long ago as 1830. Londoners have always enjoyed pulling a fast one on strangers.
It is always hard to believe when you look at the crowded, slightly down-at-heel area despite the efforts of the gentrifiers that it was once a hedge and tree-lined country lane outside the walls of the city. In medieval times it was called Hog’s Lane, either because it marked an ancient droving track where pigs and other animals were brought to the capital for slaughter or because the local bakers were allowed to keep pigs outside the City walls. By the end of the 16th century the area had changed, had become a commercial area noted for its trade in garments and had undergone a name change at the turn of the 17th century. It was said at the time that “they would steal your petticoat at one end of the market and sell it back to you at the other end”. Peticote Lane was probably a reference to the second-hand clobber that was sold there.
Despite the slightly shady connotations in the saying, the area was initially a prestigious address, the Spaniards who came to attend the court of James I settling there. Mind you, they and all the better sorts fled the area when the Great Plague struck in 1665. The area then became the refuge for the waves of refugees who arrived in the metropolis, principally the Jews and Huguenots who established the area as a centre for weaving and clothing manufacture. Naturally, it was an area where the products were sold and in the mid 18th century it was where the well-to-do would go on a Sunday to buy the wares on offer in the Lane.
Despite the name change in 1830, the essential character of the area did not change. One newspaper reported in 1845, “it is the same filthy, badly paved street as it ever was….Although Middlesex Street is painted on the walls on each side of the lane, Petticoat-lane it is still called and ever well be”. And so it has.
One of the curious things about the market which was held on Sundays was that it contravened trading laws and in the early part of the 20th century concerted attempts were made by the authorities to close it down. The efforts were often unsubtle if not downright dangerous, with buses, fire engines and police cars with sirens blaring being driven through the market to drive away the crowds. But the East-enders have an indomitable spirit – the market would not die – and an Act of Parliament was passed in 1936 protecting the market.
It still exists – a market is held on Monday to Friday on nearby Wentworth Street – but the main deal for buyer and sellers of the rag trade takes place in Middlesex Street on Sundays. It is well worth a visit but watch out for your petticoats!