Tag Archives: Birchin Lane

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.

The Streets Of London – Part One Hundred And Nine

Cowper’s Court, EC3

If you walk down Cornhill in an easterly direction, then on the right-hand side, just before you get to Birchin Lane, you will come across a passageway named Cowper Court. Unprepossessing as it may appear today, just another alley in the warren that characterises the area, it has its own share of stories to tell.   

Originally known as Fleece Lane, which is its moniker in John Rocque’s Map of London and Westminster of 1746, or Fleece Passage according to other contemporaneous maps, it took its name from a tavern in the vicinity, the Golden Fleece. This seems to have been a substantial building as it had to pay tax on sixteen hearths in 1662.

From around the middle of the 18th century the Passage hosted one of the bustling coffee houses of the time, the Jerusalem, popular amongst members of the East India Company and the venue where shipping news, gossip and opinions were shared. It rivalled the Lloyd’s coffee shop as the place to go to for breaking maritime news and was also frequented by traders associated with the South Sea Company.   

The Jerusalem earned a particularly unique place in detective history in 1845 with the arrest there of one John Tawell for murdering his mistress, Sarah Hart, by giving her prussic acid to prevent his affair coming out in the open. What was ground-breaking about Tawell’s arrest was that for the first time the police, stationed in Slough, used a new fangled device known as the telegraph to alert their London colleagues that a person matching Tawell’s description had boarded a train to Paddington. The police tailed him to the Jerusalem where they effected the arrest the following day. Despite spinning a line that the unfortunate Hart had eaten an apple whose pips had contained the poison, did not find salvation and was hanged in Aylesbury on March 28th the following year. Shortly afterwards, although for unrelated reasons, the Jerusalem fell out of fashion and eventually closed down.

I have noted on numerous occasions that fire had a major role to play in the development of the metropolis and this area of Cornhill was to suffer the largest fire to hit the city between the Great Fire and the Blitz. Starting in Mr Eldridge’s periwig-making establishment in Exchange Lane at around 1am on Friday March 25, 1748 it quickly spread due to poorly constructed housing lacking brick built dividing walls in attic spaces and inadequate fire fighting measures, its progress only arrested because the wind blew the flames towards more solidly built buildings and a wide road over which they could not cross. Nevertheless, over 100 buildings were destroyed, and six people died in the fire, the wig maker and his family together with a worker and a tenant, the latter breaking his back when he jumped out of a window.

The conflagration prompted an improvement in municipal firefighting capabilities including more effective equipment and the installation of turncocks in the streets, and the rise of house insurance. By 1750 most houses were insured. Of particular relevance to our street, the area was redeveloped and what was Fleece Lane was renamed Cowper’s Court, after Sir William Cowper, the first Lord High Chancellor of Great Britain, who once had a house there.

Today it is a rather scruffy, undistinguished back alley, most of whose buildings are internally modern sitting behind facades, lined with striking white tiles to help reflect light into the windows of the nearby offices.