Tag Archives: Pickwick Papers

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.

What Is The Origin Of (114)?…


Queer the pitch

This phrase is used to indicate that someone has done something that has had the effect of spoiling the business in hand. Variants exist where the definite article is replaced by the possessive such as one’s or their or my.

For many of a certain generation their first encounter with the word queer, either adjectivally or as a noun, was as a pejorative term for someone who was or was considered to be homosexual. But queer has had a long and colourful history as the English language evolved. At the start of the 16th century it was used as an adjective to describe someone or thing which was strange, peculiar or eccentric, probably deriving its etymology from the Low German quer which meant perverse or off centre. Interestingly, the use of the term to describe a homosexual is directly from this meaning.

In the 18th century and later queer as an adjective also took the meaning of feeling out of sorts or unwell. Charles Dickens used the word in this context in the Pickwick Papers, “legs shaky – head queer – round and round – earthquake sort of feeling –  very”. By then it had also taken on its third grammatical form, a verb, initially meaning to puzzle, ridicule or cheat, but from around 1812 taking the sense of to spoil or ruin or to jeapordise – precisely the meaning it has in our idiom.

Pitch as a noun has a variety of meanings ranging from the quality of a sound governed by the rate of vibrations producing it to a piece of land on which a sport or a game is played to an area where a street vendor or performer stations themselves to attract a crowd or custom. It is this latter sense that is deployed in our phrase. The phrase first appeared in print in The Swell’s Night Guide of 1846, “Nanty coming it on a pall, or wid cracking to queer a pitch”. In the days before telephone boxes and the internet if someone wanted to enjoy the services of a sex worker, there were a number of organs they could turn to help them in their search. Swell’s Night Guide was one and the pitch referred to in its usage is the area in which the worker operated.

Interestingly, as the 19th century progressed our phrase was taken up by theatrical types who used it as a synonym for upstaging. In a theatrical memoir dating to 1866 we have this rather dramatic description of an incident in a theatre and the admission that our phrase was part of the theatrical argot, “The smoke and fumes of “blue fire” which had been used to illuminate the fight came up through the chinks of the stage, fit to choke a dozen Macbeths, and – pardon the little bit of professional slang – poor Jamie’s “pitch” was “queered” with a vengeance”.

Whilst we are on the subject of queer, we may as well deal with on queer street which is used to describe someone who is in some difficulty, usually financial. Although it has been associated with Carey Street which is where the bankruptcy courts were held, the courts only moved there in the 1840s. Queer Street was defined in a revised edition of Grose’s Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue as “wrong, improper, contrary to one’s wish. It is queer street, a cant phrase to signify that it is wrong, or contrary to our wish”. In other words, it takes on the meaning for queer that was current at the time.