Above: The name ‘Cheapside’ as it appears on the Copper Engraving (c1550). We also catch a glimpse of the Elizabethan houses that lined the street.
As you walk around the City today, several features distract your attention. The roads are full of traffic, making you aware that you should pay attention as you walk beside them or attempt to cross. The tall buildings also catch your eye – either because they are so large or simply because they are so ugly. All of these distractions are usually so overwhelming that it is not really possible to focus your mind on the City’s history. As you walk about, one street looks very much like another these days and it is so easy to lose track of what it must have looked like in much earlier times. The whole of the City was once filled with timber-framed houses and overhanging second and third floors. In general, the streets were narrow – especially the lanes and alleyways.
What we need is a map that ‘shouts’ at you. Some of the streets marked on a modern map need be made to ‘shout’ in some way – either by being shown brightly coloured or possibly highlighted. They need to draw your attention as if to say ‘I was important once but look at me now. I am just a drab modern thoroughfare and nobody takes any interest in me any more’. It is very similar to visiting a street market and enjoying the hustle and bustle of the place. It may only be held on just one day of the week. If you visit that street on any other day, it is ‘just a street’ because all the atmosphere of the market is missing. That is a simple example that may help to get the point across. Walking down a city street today, unless you happen to know its history, you are not aware of what an interesting street it once was. Well, the street that needs to ‘shout’ at us today is Cheapside because it was once the main street market for the City of London. There was a second street market called Eastcheap but that was nowhere near as extensive as the one in Cheapside.
Cheapside has been lined with office buildings for a couple of centuries. It has not really been a market since the time of the Great Fire of London (1666). The market returned after the fire but it was never the bustling place that it had been when the street was lined with timber-framed houses. Gradually the market declined and the thoroughfare turned into being ‘just a City street’.
The first syllable in the name Cheapside comes from ‘cēap’ which was Anglo Saxon for ‘a purchase’ and came to mean a market. The word ‘cēap’ was pronounced ‘cheap’. The Saxon word ‘chepe’ also meant ‘a market’. In early times, Cheapside was called ‘Westcheap’ – because it was on the west side of the old walled City. Similarly, Eastcheap was so-called because it was on the east side – actually quite close to London Bridge.
The earliest pictorial representation of Cheapside on a map is shown on the so-called Copper Engraving – part of which is shown above. The name of the street is shown as ‘Chepe Syde’ and not as ‘Westcheap’ which is interesting. In the bottom left-hand part of the image is a small part of St Paul’s Churchyard. Above that are a church and three leather water-jugs shown, indicating that there was a source of fresh water nearby. To the right, the object labelled ‘Ye Cross’ is an Eleanor Cross that stood in the roadway of Cheapside, opposite the southern end of Wood Street. On the far right is another source of water also shown with three leather water-jugs – it is The Standard which stood opposite the southern end of Milk Street.
On the map we can see that standing beside Cheapside are large timber-framed Tudor houses. We know from other sources that they were highly decorated with intricate carving on the external timbers. Many of them were lived in by wealthy craftsmen who sold what they made from the ground-floor shop within each house. The map shows that there were several churches in the area whose towers stand out above the roof-tops.
Above: Modern street map showing Cheapside as related to Queenhithe and the River Thames.
Streets Named after Commodities
Now for a look at the map. Running across the map is a street (filled with RED) called Cheapside today. It is believed to have started around the 9th century and was the main marked in the City. Evidence of the commodities sold there is to be seen by looking at some of the names of the side streets. The first letter of each street name is shown in YELLOW.
Poultry (P) – leads east from Cheapside making the whole street look quite long. The earliest record of poultry being sold in the street is from 1275. Chickens, ducks, geese and possibly eggs were sold in the street. John Stow, (writing the ‘Survey of London’ in 1605) says ‘Their poultry which they sold at their stalls were scalded there’.
Bread Street (B) – is a turning off the south side of Cheapside, this turning relates to bakers in name only. Today, there are sandwich shops nearby but they hardly count as bakers. When the bakers were in Bread Street, the Worshipful Company of Bakers visited the shops to check that their loaves were the correct weight. If they were underweight, the baker was made to walk around the streets with the loaves tied around his next as a punishment.
Friday Street – was well-known in Catholic times because it was on Fridays that the residents used to visit fish shops lining the street to buy their weekly meal. Sadly, Friday Street no longer joins onto Cheapside and is shown as a DOTTED LINE. Only a very short part at the southern end still exists and is still called Friday Street.
Friday Street used to run south to form a T-junction with a street running east to west – called Old Fish Street. The street no longer exists. Fish was landed at Queenhithe and taken up to Old Fish Street where it was gutted and stored. The fish was then sold — mainly on Fridays — to the public in shops lining Friday Street.
Wood Street – runs off the north side of Cheapside and is still its full length. It ends at the junction with Fore Street, as it did in medieval times. It is assumed that timber was sold in Wood Street, which was the main material for the construction of houses.
Milk Street (M) – this street was where cows would stand and milk-maids would draw milk for any passing customers. How popular milk was as a drink is not known. It could be that the milk was bought for use in cooking and not so much for drinking.
Honey Lane (H) – a self-evident name which is today no more than a passageway. The tarp-eyed visitors have probably noticed that above the passageway is an arch bearing a large bee cut in stone. In fact, John Rocque’s map (1746) shows the lane leading to an extensive market area called ‘Honey Lane Market’.
Ironmonger Lane (I) – this conjures up a vision of a row of hardware shops but it probably was not like that. It was probably merchants selling knives, hammers and nails.
So far, the count of related street names has reached seven. They are the streets that actually run off Cheapside itself. To the west of Cheapside is a gap before you reach Newgate Street and that will be discussed next.
Newgate Street (N) – in medieval times, Newgate Street was where the butchers sold their meat. There were rows of similar stalls, selling cuts of meat as well as many types of offal (including liver) which were also popular dishes at the time. The meat was sold in pieces having been cut off animals that had been slaughtered nearby. Remember that not far away was Smithfield which was where live animals were sold. Whether the meat market grew up in Newgate Street because the live-stock market was conveniently close at Smithfield is not known.
The Shambles (S) – nearly every large town and city had a street called ‘The Shambles’. There is still a street by that name in the City of York. The name referred to the butchers’ stalls. Where the letter ‘S’ is shown was labelled ‘The Shambles’ on Elizabethan street maps of London. ‘The Shambles’ is an obsolete term for an open-air slaughterhouse and meat market. Streets of that name were so called from having been the sites on which butchers killed and dressed animals for consumption.
Cheapside was a long-established market and many other traders brought their wares for sale. Some sellers at the market would walk there each day to sell their wares from a barrow or something similar. The whole street was a busy place, with a market held there every day except Sunday – when all the good citizens would attend church. Other commodities will now be mentioned which are not related to existing street names. Initial letters are shown in GREEN.
Goldsmiths (G) – On the south side of Cheapside, towards the western end, almost opposite the end of Wood Street, there was a row of large ornate timber-framed houses owned by goldsmiths. They not only sold their rings, necklaces and jewellery but the goldsmiths worked in their shops and lived on the upper floors of the houses. They often also had craftsmen working for them on the premises.
Leather (L) – Running south from Cheapside was Cordwainer Street, now renamed Bow Lane. Henry Harben (the originator of the information in the ‘Dictionary of London’) says Bow Lane was once called Cordwainer Street. Cordwainers were members of a guild who worked in fine leather (not cobblers). They were in the street from the 12th century.
Mercery (Me) – On the north side of Cheapside, at the junction with Poultry, was the Mercery. On part of that land, the Mercers’ Company still has its hall today. Mercery included linen, silk, worsted (a fine cloth originally made in the village of Worsted, in Norfolk) and small manufactured items including what is now called haberdashery. It is from the ancient name of ‘Mercery’ that the Mercers’ Company derived their name.
Rabbit Stalls (R) – In addition to chickens being sold at the street called Poultry, there was also a rabbit market — hence Coneyhope Lane. Harben states that ‘Coneyhope Lane’ ran north off Poultry in the Parish of St Mildred (a church the once stood at the eastern end of Poultry). Its earliest mention was a ‘Conohop Lane’ in 1292. The chapel of St Mary de Coneyhope was in the lane and also the Grocers’ Hall. The site is now occupied by Grocers’ Hall Court which is a gated turning off the north side of Poultry. The word ‘coney’ is a Middle English word for a rabbit or its skin which comes from Old French ‘conin’, deriving originally from the Latin ‘cuniculus’.
Wine Shops and Ale Houses – There were wine shops, alehouses, taverns and inns along the whole of Cheapside. Wine shops were mainly patronised by the more wealthy citizens. Ale was the drink of choice for most people. They did not drink water and tea did not arrive in London until the 17th century.
Cook Shops – There were endless cook-shops along the length of Cheapside. Just as today, so the Elizabethans were well-into their take-away food. The cookshops sold food ready to eat. In medieval and Elizabethan times it was food that was easy to eat, like pies and pasties. Although strongly associated with Cornwall, pasties have been around since at least the 14th century.
Above: Modern map of the riverfront (enlarged from the above map) showing some of the principal wharves.
We will take a look at the riverfront and consider the wharves between Queenhithe and The Steelyard. They may seem some distance from Cheapside but they played an important part in the affairs of the market. Various commodities were imported on this part of the riverfront and many of them would have found their way to the market at Cheapside. Initial letters are shown in BLUE.
The most important wharves are shown on a modern map, indicated by a sailing ship carrying its cargo. The riverfront in the City was still lined with old wharves and warehouses right up to the 1960s and it was then not difficult to imagine earlier times when smaller warehouses lined the edge of the Thames.
Queenhithe (Q) – The most important landing place related to Cheapside was the dock known as Queenhithe. We have already mentioned the Fishmongers and Friday Street. The fishmongers operated from Queenhithe, unpacking fish delivered by ships small enough to pass through the drawbridge opening of London Bridge. After the fish was landed at Queenhithe, it was taken to sheds at Old Fish Street (which no longer exists) to be gutted and prepared before being sold up the hill at Friday Street. The original Fishmongers’ Hall had stood in Old Fish Street.
The Fishmongers’ Hall is now at the north end of London Bridge but it did not become their official hall until 1444. Billingsgate Fish Market – a short distance east of London Bridge – was not established until 1666 (after the Great Fire of London).
To the west of Queenhithe was High Timber Street which extended between Broken Wharf and Brook’s Wharf. It was first mentioned as ‘la Tymberhethe’ in 1263. Harben says that it was so-called from timber being ‘brought by ship and landed there and warehoused there’. According to Harben, the tenements and wharves at Timberhithe were otherwise called Broken Wharf. Stow says it was ‘so-called of timber or boordes there taken and wharfed’. Stow probably means that the timber was brought to the wharf by ship and stacked in warehouses. The site was High Timber Street which still exists today. There is also a short street called Broken Wharf which is named after the riverside dock that was used in Tudor times.
Garlickhithe (Ga) – Garlick Hill, was so-named because many spices were unloaded near Queenhithe and stored in warehouses in and around Garlick Hill. Harben says Garlickhithe was a hithe or wharf on the Thames in Vintry Ward (which is to the east of Queenhithe). Garlickhithe was where herbs were imported, particularly garlic but also many rare spices – like pepper, cinnamon, ginger, clove and saffron.
Vintry (V) – A short distance east of Queenhithe – where today’s Southwark Bridge meets the City shore – was a small area known as Vintry. It was where the vintners lived and worked, importing wine from France, particularly Bordeaux. Most of the wine was then taken to Westminster where it was drunk in large quantities by the Court at the Palace of Westminster. Remember that the Norman kings were of French descent. Geoffrey Chaucer was born in a house at the Vintry because his father was in the wine business and worked there. His also father had a wine shop in Cheapside.
The Steelyard (St) – Further east once more – now the site of Cannon Street Station – was an enclave of men living at The Steelyard, who were members of the Hanseatic League. It was rather like a ‘Common Market’ with members who came from Germany, the Baltic countries, Russia and England. The English headquarters was in London. Many imports from northern Europe were brought into England and the City due to the League.
That completes the description of the market at Cheapside. It is to be hoped that you have enjoyed your visit to the ‘virtual’ Elizabethan market. At least when you next hear the name or visit the street it will mean more than just a long boring line of offices!
We will end with a quote by a visitor from the Continent who travelled around England in the late 16th century and kept a diary of what he saw. While walking through Westcheap he commented that ‘there appear so many and such diverse varieties of wares on whatever side one turns so that it is a wonderful thing to behold, for it seems that not only Europe but also all parts of the world have attempted to try to make themselves known in London’.
What the visitor saw of the market in Cheapside must have been really something to wonder at. In the 16th century, the market was its heigh-day. If only there were pictures and drawings of what it all looked like! If only there were scenes of the traders selling in their shops or from their stalls. They were probably there six days each week. Shops were selling bread, poultry, milk and honey in defined areas. There was also an almost endless variety of wine shops, taverns or pie shops. What a variety of goods! What a vibrant place it must have been!
Related pages for – Cheapside