The Streets Of London – Part Eighty Four

Knightrider Street, EC4V

London is an ever-changing city and testament to that is Knightrider Street. Today it is a rather insignificant alley but in its prime was a major City thoroughfare. In its modern incarnation it runs parallel to Carter Lane to the north and Queen Victoria Street, running from Addle Hill in the west to Peter’s Hill in the east. Formerly, it was much longer, extending further east and, possibly, running into Queen Victoria Street, although this is far from certain, and marked the boundary between a number of City wards. How times have changed.

The street first appeared in documents as far back as 1322, where it appeared as Knyghtrdestrete. The inestimable antiquarian, John Stow, gave an explanation of how the name came about, in his 1598 Survey of London. According to Stow, it “was so called (as is supposed) of Knights well armed and mounted at the Tower Royall, ryding from thence through that street, west to Creede Lane, and so out at Ludgate towards Smithfield when they were there to turney, joust or otherwise to shew activities before the king and states of Realme.”

Others doubt the veracity of Stow’s explanation, charming as it is to imagine knights of the realm riding out in all their splendour for a session at the jousting lists. The problem is that knightrider didn’t exist as a word at the time. In Middle English rider was synonymous with a knight and, perhaps, the street was simply called Rider Street with Knight added as a prefix at a later date, when the association between rider and knight was blurred. Who knows?

The middle section of the street was known as Old Fish Street and at least from the 12th century there was a fish market, piscaria, there. This alone suggests that the thoroughfare, irrespective of its name, dated to that period, if not well before.

Visitors to the street will find, if they walk eastwards, crossing Godliman Street, on their left-hand side The Centre Page pub at no 29, previously the Horn Tavern until the name change in 2002. It has a name check in Pepys’ diaries, Samuel noting on April 13th 1663 “and so I called at the wardrobe on my way home and there spoke at the Horn Tavern with Mr Moore a word or two.” Guy Fawkes is also said to have met there, whilst plotting to blow up the Houses of Parliament, suggesting that it was well established before Pepys’ visit.

The pub was badly damaged during the Great Fire but was rebuilt, operating as a fashionable coffee-house, where the Free and Easy under the Rose Society, a form of Freemasons, met from 1758, as well as a tavern. It was here, according to Dickens’ Pickwick Papers, that Winkle, Snodgrass and Tupman sent out for “a bottle or two of very good wine” to sustain their leader during his sojourn in Fleet prison. It was damaged during the blitz but dusted itself down and got back into business. If you visit it these days you will find that there is a corner dedicated to David Hasselhoff, for obvious reasons.

Thomas Linacre lived in the Stone House on the street and it was there that he founded the College of Physicians on September 23rd 1518. Its powers to regulate physicians were extended to cover all of England, not just London, by Act of Parlaiment in 1523. Stow notes that a public lecture in what he termed as Chirugerie was given there every Wednesday and Friday, a custom which was instituted on 6th May 1584.

Stow also noted that from 1570 Doctors of “the Ciuill Law and Arches” kept quarters, known as Doctors’ Commons, and lodged on the street, probably where the BT Faraday building is today. The Commons were destroyed in the Great Fire but rebuilt shortly thereafter, before being demolished in 1867.

Time has not served this street well, methinks.

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