Like all of London, the East End is rich in history. Despite modernisation and rebuilding initiatives over the years, you can still find older hidden gems in the area. This isn’t just about historic buildings, streets and scary small alleyways where Jack the Ripper probably walked.
Odd East End Street Names
The East End also still retains some curious old street names with interesting stories behind them that teach us something about the area.
Henry VIII set up an artillery ground in Spitalfields to give local men a place to practice their longbow, crossbow and handgun skills. Although the ground moved in the 1650s, it is still remembered in many local street names, including Artillery Passage.
Originally called Whitechapel Street, this street’s name changed to Brick Lane because it was a local centre for tile and brick manufacturers in the 15th century.
As you might expect, the main industry in Limehouse’s Cable Street was cable, or rope, making. What is interesting about this street is that it runs straight for the length of an average ship’s cable. This allowed people to lay out the ropes as they made them.
Frying Pan Alley
Situated close to Middlesex Street and Petticoat Lane market, the quaintly named Frying Pan Alley gives us an indication of the businesses that used to operate in this street. Ironmongers and braziers used the frying pan as the emblem of their trade and they would hang a pan outside their shop so people could see what their business was. Over time, the name stuck, even if the frying pans are long gone.
Goodmans Fields in Stepney doesn’t describe the nice nature of the locals, but it does give us an indication of what went on in the area in the past. This street is named after a local farmer, Roland Goodman, who used to farm land here for a nunnery in Elizabethan times.
Houndsditch runs through part of the East End. It is thought to be located alongside a ditch that the Romans built as part of their city defences. This ditch was filled in, but others were built on the site over the years. The first recorded reference to the road as Houndsditch was in the 13th century. It is likely that the name came from the number of dead dogs thrown into the ditch, which was used as a bit of a rubbish tip. An excavation in the late 1980s did, indeed, unearth a fair few dog skeletons.
King Henry’s Stairs
Nobody is sure if Henry VII actually used these stairs or not, but they do have a connection. They lead down to King Henry’s wharf. They were named after a cannon foundry that he set up in Wapping to make guns for his warships.
Unfortunately, Kitcat Terrace in Bow has nothing to do with the chocolate bar. The road was named after the Reverend Henry Kitcat, but its name still makes passers-by smile.
Mile End Road
Mile End Road is an ancient road that links London with the East of the country. Its name was first recorded formally in the 1200s as “La Mile ende”. It basically means the small place that is a mile away, marking the distance from the City of London to Mile End on the way to Colchester.
Before London’s Chinese population set up base in the current Chinatown, it was based in Poplar. You can still see references to the Chinese community that settled here in street names like Nanking Street.
Home to one of the East End’s best-known and biggest markets, Petticoat Lane is located in the Spitalfields area of the East End. Although the market is still known by this name, the lane has been renamed Middlesex Street. It was renamed in Victorian times because prudish Londoners didn’t like the fact that a street was named after women’s undergarments.
The street was probably originally called Petticoat Lane as it sold lace products and petticoats made by local Spitalfields weavers. Over time, the notoriety of the area came into play. People used to say that the street got its name from the fact that people would steal your petticoat at one end of the lane and then sell it back to you at the other.
Bethnal Green‘s Roman Road does relate to a road built by the Romans leading out of London to Colchester. This road got its name later, however, in Victorian times. Archaeologists discovered the original Roman road in the 1840s – this road runs parallel to it. This is one of the most significant ancient roads in British history, as it was the route used by Queen Boadicea on her way to take on the Romans in London.
Tenter Ground was originally an open space used by Huguenot weavers who moved into the Spitalfields area. They used the space to dry the cloths they made on frames called tenters, which had hooks to pull cloth tightly so that it dried evenly, and without creasing. There may be no space left here, but the name remains in the street name. This process also gave us the well-known phrase “on tenterhooks”.