The Streets Of London – Part Ninety Six

Great Turnstile, WC1

Often, I find with London’s streets that the derivation of their names is nothing other than the bleedin’ obvious but that the point of interesting lies in the why and what went on there. Take Great Turnstile, for example. This street, little more than an alley in truth, is to be found on the south side of High Holborn, leading to the northern end of Lincoln’s Inn’s Fields. There is also a Little Turnstile, just before Holborn tube station, again on the south side of High Holborn and, to complete the set, next door New Turnstile.

It will probably come as no surprise that Great Turnstile got its name from a turnstile sited there and was intended to stop cattle grazing in the fields of Lincoln’s Inn wandering into Holborn. Records dating to 1522 give what is now Great Turnstile the name of Turngatlane and it is probable that buildings were not erected in the vicinity until after 1545. One of the earliest and more reliable maps of London, the woodcut map of London from 1560 known as the Agas map but almost certainly not the work of the surveyor, Ralph Agas, shows two turnstiles in situ.

A plan of the area between the two turnstiles dating from around 1590 shows there was a row of houses along the stretch together with an orchard. Although this conjures up a picture of a bucolic idyll, muck and stench was never far away. The Survey of Crown Lands from 1650 refers to a property which was adjacent to Little Turnstile and records that it was built on land “heretofore a ditch or common sewer and filled upp”. The New Turnstile, as befits its name, was a Johnny-come-lately, built in 1685, and probably took its name from the streets around it rather than because it was an acting as a new and improved cattle prevention measure.

From the seventeenth century the Turnstiles played their part in the flourishing London book trade. One such publisher was George Hutton who set up shop at the “Sign of the Sun within the Turning Stile at Holborne” in the 1630s. John Bagford had a shoe shop in Great Turnstile but he was also branched out to be a bookseller and a collector. He amassed two collections, one of ballads and the other of title pages of books. The latter collection led William Blades to call Bagford a “wicked old biblioclast”, a wonderful term for the shocking crime of defacing and breaking up books. Whether Bagford was a biblioclast has never been conclusively established. No 10 Great Turnstile, for much of the twentieth century, was the home of the New Statesman magazine.   

Great Turnstile was also known for the manufacture of scientific instruments. The father of civil engineering, James Smeaton, set up shop in the eighteenth century to make what were termed at the time philosophical instruments, a path followed in 1854 by the incumbent of Number 3, Great Turnstile, one William Ford Stanley. He produced drawing instruments initially from wood but when he turned his attention to aluminium, his instruments were so accurate that his business flourished. Within a decade Stanley had several factories in the area and a total of three shops on the street, becoming along the way the largest instrument maker in the world. In 1914 the journal American Machinist called his first shop a landmark in engineering.

These days Great Turnstile is a rather anonymous collection of modern office blocks and barely hints at its more colourful past. At least the name lives on.      

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