Above: A small part of the so-called Agas map, c1561, showing the church of St Olave in Tooley Street.
The name ’Tooley’ sounds a really odd name for a street – or anything else for that matter. In essence the name today can be put down to a mixture of ‘good old Cockney’ mis-pronunciation and a general lazy way of pronouncing words or phrases that develops over centuries.
The simple fact is that there was once a parish church standing on the north side (the river side) of Tooley Street which was called St Olave. Its site is now occupied by St Olaf House. The site is a very short distance east of London Bridge (an article was written up about St Olaf House on 9 March 2016). It is that church that caused the street to be so-named but in order to understand how that came about we need to do a bit more explaining first.
The church of St Olave was first mentioned in documents in 1035. It is believed to have been founded by the Danes who occupied parts of London – including the City of London – around that time, including land on the south side of the Thames.
Although when saying ‘St Olave’ today most people would pronounce it ’Saint Olave’ – meaning that ‘Saint’ is pronounced as one syllable and ‘Olave’ is pronounced as two syllables. In medieval times there was a tendency to pronounce the name as ’Sain Tolave’ – hence adding the last consonant of ‘Saint’ onto the second word which happened to start with a vowel. This may sound strange to us today but we know this to be the case. In medieval times there were also churches named after Saint Audrey. You may have already noticed that this saint’s name also starts with a vowel and, yes, that too was pronounced in a similar way as ’Sain Taudrey’. In the case of St Audrey, people started to write the name as ‘Sain Tawdrey’ and eventually ‘Sain Tawdry’. In the case of one church by that name, there was a street market nearby that sold ribbons. Ladies dressing up in clothes decorated with ribbons, because they were poor, were said to be ’tawdry’ and so that English word – meaning cheap and gaudy finery – eventually entered the English language. On the subject of saints whose names start with a vowel, there is also St Alphage but there are no written records to confirm whether that name was pronounced ‘Sain Talphage’.
We seem to have strayed a little from the point but the other saint illustrates the essence of what is being said. If ‘Audrey’ became ’Tawdrey’ or ’Tawdry’ then ‘Olave’ could just as easily become ’Tolave’. This was, in fact, the case and ’Tolave’ became ’Towlles’ and eventually ’Tooley’.
Above: A small part of the Braun and Hogenberg map, of 1575, showing the church of St Olave in Tooley Street.
At the top of this article is a small part of the Agas map, published about 1561. It shows the church of St Olave labelled ’S. Towlles’. The same spelling appears on Braun and Hogenberg’s map of 1575. It will be realised that if the name was being pronounced as it was spelt on the two maps, it is a relatively ‘short step’ to the even more corrupted ‘Tooley’.
To say that Tooley Street is a corruption of ‘St Olave’s Street’ at first does seem rather confusing and far fetched but, after understanding the mispronunciation of ‘St Audrey’ it might seem a little more likely that ‘St Olave’ led eventually to ’Tooley’. The church was closed due to so few people worshiping there and then demolished in 1927. It was replaced by the office block now called ‘St Olave House’.