The Streets Of London – Part One Hundred And Ten

Birchin Lane, EC3

Birchin Lane connects Cornhill at its northern end with Lombard Street at its southern end. There is some dispute as to the etymology of its name. The eminent 16th century antiquarian, John Stow, claimed that it was a corruption of the name of the first builder and owner of the land, Birchover. Others claim that it meant a lane of barbers, Birchin being a corruption of an Old English word, beardceofere. The Middle English verb, cherven, itself originating from ceorfan, meant to cut hair. Who knows?

Standing on the banks of the river valley of the Walbrook, the area now occupied by Birchin Lane once formed part of the Roman’s first settlements in London. The Romans built their first basilica and Forum in the area that runs alongside Gracechurch Street but in the 2nd century CE constructed a successor in the area between Fenchurch Street and Cornhill. It is fascinating to think of toga-wearing Romans walking around the area.

Given its proximity to Cornhill, a major thoroughfare in the City in mediaeval times, Birchin Lane is almost certainly one of London’s oldest streets. The monk, John Lydgate, mentioned that in the 14th century there was a market near and around Birchin Lane, although the first time its name was recorded was in 1473. At that time the lane was the place to go to trade with fripperers, stallholders we would now know as second-hand clothes merchants. Their stalls ran along the Lane and spilled into Lombard Street.          

By the 16th century or possibly earlier, Birchin Lane became better known for its hosiers. Isabella Whitney, England’s first secular female poet, wrote a mock will, a satirical farewell to London and her friends, entitled Her Will and Testament and published at the close of the 16th century. Within the poem she managed to bring contemporary London alive; “I hose do leave in Birchin Lane/ of any kind of size/ For women stitched, for men both trunks/ and those of Gascon guise”.

It was not just hosiery that was sold there. Slightly earlier in 1573, Whitney had produced a useful guide to where to go in London to buy a range of goods. Birchin Lane, in her estimation, was the place to go to for women’s footwear, because “artisans sold boots and shoes and pantables or overshoes for walking in the dirty streets of London”. Extending its range during the following century, Birchin Lane became known as a place for men to buy ready-made clothing.

Following the Great Fire of 1666 and the reconstruction of the City, Cornhill re-established its position as being one of the busiest thoroughfares and Birchin Lane, hanging on to its coat tails, was able to exploit its position. There was a craze for what were known as penny universities, coffee houses where for the price of a penny a young man “without regard to rank or privilege” could enter and converse with anyone there, exchanging news, opinion and conducting business. Tom’s Coffee House could be found on the Lane, frequented by the Shakespearean actor, David Garrick, when he was transacting financial business on the London Exchange.

Coffee houses were also used as post restante by travellers. Before setting out for London Benjamin Franklin wrote to his sister, Jane Mecom, on April 19, 1757, instructing her to “direct your letters to be left for me at the Pensilvania Coffee House in Birchin Lane”. Franklin was obviously a regular there as some of his letters back to friends and relatives gave the coffee house as his address. There were drawbacks, though. On September 27, 1766 Franklin wrote to Joseph Galloway, a friend and American loyalist; “I have been told that one Williamson of Pensilvania who is here, reads letters at the Coffee-house, said to be from you to me or from me to you…for which reason I would wish you to write no more to me by that course, as I apprehend some scoundrel may be employed there in the scandalous office of prying into, and perhaps making bad or false copies of our correspondence”.  

What Franklin knew as the Pensilvania was also known as the Carolina Coffee House, a home from home for travelling Americans, which was certainly open by 1682, making it one of the earliest, and didn’t close its doors until at least 1831. Its probable location was what is now number 25 Birchin Lane, although the original premises were destroyed in the fire of 1748. It was restored and back in business in time for Franklin to take residency there.

What is now a fairly mundane, pedestrianised street has a long and fascinating history.

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