… or quite interesting ones anyway
For a glimpse of Whitecross Street market in its heyday, you should watch What a Crazy World (1963). Filmed a year before, The Cracksman was a comedy about an honest locksmith with a shop in Whitecross Street who gets duped into a safe-cracking scheme. Both films start with exactly the same opening shots of St Luke’s church spire, viewed from Whitecross Street market.
Harrods started life in Whitecross Street. It was set up in 1824 by Charles Harrod as a retailer of household linens and drapes, and it stood where ‘Minuit Moins 7‘ is today. It was 25 years before his son, Charles Digby, realised they might have made a slight miscalculation, and moved the shop from Whitecross Street to South Kensington.
The only original wooden street (or bit of one) still remaining in London today is just round the corner from Whitecross Street in Chequer Street. The highways authority in Victorian London decided wood would be better than stone cobbles because wheels and horse hooves didn’t make so much noise on wood, and horses could get a better grip. Two problems. House owners stole some of the streets as firewood. And the wood started rotting. (I think they could have anticipated that one.) So they brought back the cobbles!
There were several prisons in this part of London in Victorian times, often for debtors. The most famous one – in Clink Street – became a name for prisons generally. There was a less-famous one in Whitecross Street, long forgotten, but there is a blue plaque to commemorate where it once stood (you can find it on the corner of a Peabody block facing Whitecross Street). One of the complaints about Whitecross Street prison was that ‘inmates have no means of protecting themselves from association with the depraved’. (That remains a problem in Whitecross Street cafés to this day.)
The Spreadeagle Inn – what a marvellous name for a pub, it tells you everything you need to know about 11pm – once stood on Whitecross Street where the Whitecross Tap stands today. It is marginally famous as the place where a Lt George Knowland’s Victoria Cross was stolen in 1945.
As far back as the 15th century there used to be a large white stone cross standing in Whitecross Street and that – you won’t be at all surprised to learn – is how Whitecross Street got its name. Quite how nearby Cumming Street, Helmet Row and Fore Street came by their names I could not say.
Whitecross Street market is one of the oldest in London, dating back to the 17th century. Whitecross Street market used to be know as ‘Squalor’s Market’ in Edwardian times. It has definitely improved.
Sellers of fruit and vegetables in street markets like Whitecross Street market were called ‘costermongers’. They had their own private language called back slang, incomprehensible to outsiders. Basically, they spoke words backwards – one still in use today is ‘yob’ for ‘boy’.
Whitecross Street is dominated by Peabody Trust estates and their very distinctive building style. Peabody Trust is a housing association originally set up in 1862 by George Peabody, an American banker, to house the poor. The familiar design evident in the blocks on the east side of Whitecross Street was by Henry Astley Darbishire, the Peabody architect until 1885. Peabody flats were considered the last word in modern conveniences – in fact, in the Whitecross Street blocks, each of the conveniences was only shared by two flats. Most of the blocks near Whitecross Street were constructed in the 1880s. The original buildings didn’t include a bath house, but did contain 32 pram sheds.
Dufferin Court to the east of Whitecross Street is not a Peabody building originally, although it is part of the estate today. It dates from 1898, and was originally built by a costermongers association, then taken over by the council, and finally by Peabody Trust.
Whitecross Street used to be almost twice as long. There was a section of Whitecross Street south of Chiswell Street as far as Fore Street. But that part of Whitecross Street now lies buried under the Barbican estate.
Whitecross Street used to have a sister, Redcross Street, on the Golden Lane side, which was destroyed by bombing in World War 2.
A 17th century ballad in the ‘Roxburghe Ballads’ went like this:
In Whitecross Street and Golden Lane
Do strapping lasses dwell
And so, there do in every street
Twixt that and Clerkenwell.
At Cowcross and at Smithfield
I have much pleasure found,
Where wenches like to fairies
Did often trace the ground.
One such strapping lass of Whitecross Street was the notorious Priss Fotheringham who in around 1660, after a career of working in brothels, set herself up as the madam of the The Six Windmills tavern on the corner of Whitecross Street and Old Street.
During her younger years, she was described as ‘the second best whore in the city’, and gained great fame for her skill at the ancient art of ‘chucking’, where she would stand on her head, naked, and customers would throw coins into what at the time was known as her ‘commodity’. Not surprisingly, this form of entertainment proved spectacularly popular, and the tavern became known as the ‘half crown chuck office’. [I borrowed these three paragraphs from the excellent Fun London Tours post about Whitecross Street.]
The Daily Advertiser in February 1774 described Whitecross Street as a ‘genteel neighbourhood’. In his 1806 book History and Description of London, David Hughson described Whitecross Street as ‘noble, wide, and well built, inhabited by persons of property’. What an estate agent he would have made!
The huge mural of a foppish 18th century swordsman on the side of the building next to the Chinese restaurant in Whitecross Street was created by Conor Harrington, a street artist from Cork in Ireland. His ‘Fight Club‘ on a wall in Dulwich shows two similar gentlemen duelling with their fists. I don’t believe our Whitecross Street one has a name. You should look up his other works on Google. They are quite something.
Cherry Tree Walk. Which comic genius came up with that one? Mind you, irony is a hallmark of London street names down the centuries. Mount Pleasant in Clerkenwell got its name in the 18th century from a monstrous rubbish tip which used to fester there.
Any street worth its name has to have a Jack The Ripper connection. One early morning in September 1889 two women passing through a courtyard in Whitecross Street were stabbed by an elderly labouring man called John Rowley. This immediately made the headlines as ‘Jack The Ripper Scare in London’. Rowley’s defence was he was trying to cut off a piece of chewing tobacco and the knife must have slipped, sort of. He got 20 months’ hard labour. (Nothing actually to do with Jack The Ripper.)
Whitecross Street Festival is a one-day annual festival (maybe two days). It is described in one review as ‘one of London’s best-kept secrets’ and I wish the secret had been kept a bit better. Every year someone puts up a shed load of huge pieces of artwork which should have remained in the shed. Then we have to look at them for a year. This year, I have to admit, they are not bad. (Everything else about the Whitecross Street festival is great though.)
Bunhill Fields near Whitecross Street contains the graves of three major literary figures: William Blake, Daniel Defoe, and John Bunyan. They come from different periods, but the connection was that they were all non-conformists – not members of the Church of England. Non-conformists could not be buried in the conservative City of London, so they had to create their own cemetery just outside the City walls, in Bunhill Fields which is a few blocks east of Whitecross Street and a favourite place for office workers to take their lunch.
In the 19th century, Whitecross Street market stayed open all night on Saturdays through to midday on Sunday. The reason was many workers in the Whitecross Street area were paid their wages on Saturday evenings in local pubs and, without Whitecross Street market staying open, their families would have gone hungry on Sunday.
Richard Cloudesley School at the south end of Whitecross Street is named after a 16th century Islington landowner who gave his land for social and religious purposes. His gift now funds about £1,000,000 a year of local community and other projects.
Fortune Street Park is relatively new. It was created in the early 1960s on a bombsite between Whitecross Street and Golden Lane. It takes its name from Fortune Street which borders it to the north, and ultimately from the Fortune Playhouse which used to stand hereabouts in Shakespeare’s day.
Fortune Playhouse was a theatre which stood between Whitecross Street and Golden Lane in the late Elizabethan era. In those days, the City of London was ‘puritan’ and did not allow theatres within the City limits. So theatrical promoters had to build their playhouses in peripheral areas, such as Whitecross Street (or in Shakespeare’s case on the South Bank). Philip Henslowe and Edward Alleyn had the Fortune Theatre built in about 1600 and it became the home of ‘the Admiral’s Men’, under the patronage of Charles Howard, the Lord Admiral. It was closed in 1642 by Cromwell’s Puritan Parliament.
The Banner family, who were landowners in the Whitecross Street area in the late 18th-century lent their name to Banner Street. Roscoe Street which crosses Whitecross Street was so-named to honour a trustee of the Peabody Trust, which was redeveloping this former slum area in the 1880s. Chequer Street just to the east of Whitecross Street took its name from the Chequers tavern which once stood there.