Thursday, January 12, 2017


In the unprecedented progress of this strange metropolis--which, after a history of more than a thousand years, still grows, to use Mr. Macaulay's phrase, "as fast as a town on a water-privilege in Missouri"—nothing is more curious than the utterly lawless process of accretion by which its various parts come to be united. London is like Christian teaching. We have street upon street, terrace upon terrace—here a little and there a little—or to speak more exactly, almost everywhere a great deal. Of the five or six great trunk lines of railway which, within the last twenty-five years, have found a common centre in the capital, there is hardly one that has not produced a new city. To take a single example:—It is not more than sixteen or seventeen years since the church which stands near the northern end of Albion-street, Hyde-park, was the Ultima Thule of London in that direction. It was surrounded by fields which were in a transition state from country to town, being covered with deep trenches just dug out to serve for the foundations of a new city. This church is now the centre from which no fewer than five lines of what advertisements call “first-class residences" diverge, expanding at short intervals into Hyde-park, Oxford and Sussex-squares, and Westbourne and Gloucester-terraces. The streets extend from a mile and a half to two miles further, including crescents, villas, squares, and terraces innumerable, suited to the most various capacities of purse. In all this immense city, large enough to be the capital of many Continental States, and constructed almost entirely to supply the wants of people more or less well to do in the world, we do not think there is a single house twenty-five years old.

One of the oddest consequences of this state of things is to be found in the strange confusion of names of streets which presents itself to the bewildered Londoner. Every builder and every landowner has done what is right in his own eyes, until the complication has become perfectly intolerable. The absence of invention and of system, of which we are sometimes accused as a nation, has seldom found a more curiously complete illustration. The Metropolitan Board of Works informs us that the following seventeen names of streets occur most frequently, viz.:—George Street, 62 times; Charles Street, 55; John Street, 45; King Street, 44; Queen Street, 38; Church Street, 34; New Street, 33; William Street, 31; High Street, 30; Union Street, 30; North Street, 28; Duke Street, 26; James Street, 25; York Street, 25; Park Place, 21; Edward Street, 20; and York Place 24 times. Thus it appears that there are 571 streets in this metropolis designated by 17 names only.

But this is not all. We have not only acted like a man who, having a large family, christens four of his seven sons George, and three Thomas, and four of his seven daughters Ann, and three Mary—but like a family who have made it a rule to endow all their children with a double-barrelled patronymic. We never get hold of a moderately euphonious word, without prefixing it to every possible variation on the word “street.” Much in the same we as Vernon and Sydney have a strange affinity with various less aristocratic names, the well sounding Belgrave and Westbourne—names which would do for the heroes of novels—are refixed to innumerable terminations. Thus we have Westbourne Street, Westbourne Terrace, Westbourne Terrace North, Westbourne Road, Westbourne Park, Westbourne Park Road, Westbourne Park Terrace, Westbourne Villas, Westbourne Park Villas, Westbourne Gardens, Westbourne Crescent, and we know not what other Westbournes, though we believe that in all there are about thirty-two of them. Not only is this a reproach upon us in an aesthetic point of view, but it entails very serious inconvenience; for, besides the difficulty of finding the synonymous places, the names occasionally mislead. Almost all the Westbournes, for example, are situated in the extreme north-west, but one of them, though we cannot undertake to say which, lies in Belgravia. Grosvenor Square, Grosvenor Place, and Grosvenor Crescent, afford an instance of a similar dislocation. Another absurd consequence of the uniformity of names is to be found in their enormous intricacy. There is a locality which rejoices in the following remarkable appellation, Melville Cottages, Torriano Avenue, Camden Town Villas, Camden Town. When one of its inhabitants sees his name written at the top and London at the bottom of such a conglomerate, he must feel like the Spanish grandee in the Elegant Extracts, who surprises the landlord by consenting
‘With all the et ceteras of his style,
To sleep upon a single pillow.’
It must, we should think, he a constant subject of wonder to an inhabitant of one of Melville &c. Cottages, that it only takes one family to live in a place with so many names.

Many have been the schemes for introducing some kind of order into this chaos, and possibly, if we had a tabula rasa to start with, they would be feasible enough. There is the American plan—we believe adopted in Philadelphia—of simple enumeration, 24th street, 65th street, &c. But, not to speak of the difficulty of distinguishing the number of the street from the number of the house, what mortal memory could remember, or what postman could discover, an address in which a cipher was illegible or omitted? What would be the feelings of a cabman on being told to drive to 6739th street, No. 35? The historical system looks more plausible. The streets of London would become a sort of school of virtue, and its ingenuous youth might be preserved by the prospect of the glories of the first floor from the temptations of the pavement. Contemplating the memorials of departed virtue, they might feel— like popular lecturers or female novelists—that they might make their names sublime, and their footprints leave behind them on the desert sands of time; but probably the list of eminent men would run out before we got to the end of our street nomenclature. We have heard of another suggestion which, though embarrassed with various difficulties, is not, we think, quite unworthy of consideration. It consists of giving to all the streets geographical names, distributed with reference to their position in London. If we divided London into districts, like the nations of a Medieaval University—as, for example, into the Northern, the East Anglian, the East and West Midland, the Home, the Western, the Welsh districts—and if, wherever a new street was to be named, we gave it the name of some place in the district to which it belonged, we should have in course of time a sort of natural arrangement of the various names. For example, Sunderland Street would be in the North of London; Norwich Square, in the East; Derby Road, somewhere in Pentonville; Hereford Terrace, in Marylebone; Lewes Crescent, in Southwark; Exeter Place, in Belgravia; and Carnarvon Gardens, in Tyburnia. Whether there is any objection to the geographical distribution of local names, we are not aware; but the port which we have already quoted mentioned a curious objection to using the names of places at all for this purpose. The word "Street," or “Terrace," is often either left out or imperfectly written—so that a letter meant for Oxford Street often goes to Oxford, and one for York Place to York.

Great as is the difficulty of naming the streets, we have contrived, it seems, to increase it by some characteristically unsymmetrical arrangements. Different parts of a leading street have entirely different names, which generally apply only to one side of the street at a time. Thus, between its junction with the Edgeware-road and the Angel at Islington, the New Road has no less than fifty-five aliases, and only one of them applies to both sides of the street. In each of these fifty-five portions there is a separate system of numbers. In other streets, the numbers are not consecutive. Thus 245, Oxford Street ought to be No. 253, and 249 and 257 are next-door neighbours. In some streets, the numbers go up one side and down the other; and in some, the odd and even numbers face each other. The Committee recommend that the latter plan should be uniformly adopted, and that the numbers should always begin at the end the street nearest St. Paul's. They also recommend that the names of the streets running east and west should be painted black on a white end, and the names of those which run north and south, white on a black ground. We should think, that, as in Paris, the same plan might advantageously be adopted with respect to the numbers; and if the colours were white on blue, and blue on white, respectively in streets to the east and south of St. Paul's, a glance would be enough to determine the points of the compass.

There is one valuable suggestion on the subject which is not mentioned in the Report, but which, some time ago, was alluded to in a Post-office circular, and is now about to be carried into effect. It is proposed that London shall be divided into as many as ten distinct districts, each with its separate Post-office, so that a letter from the Regent's Park to Belgrave Square will not have to go to the General Post-office, but will be despatched direct from one place to the other. Of course, in the dresses of such letters, it will be necessary to insert the name of the district—or initials representing it—as we insert the name of the post-town in a country letter. This would be made much easier, however, if the name of the district were always painted up under the name of the street. At present it is sometimes difficult to know whether a particular street is in Marylebone or Paddington, Paddington or Bayswater.

Upon the general recommendations of the Committee we have only one remark. They appear to us to overrate the difficulty of accustoming the public to changes. When a change is once made, it is sur rising to see how soon it becomes just as natural as the state of things which it superseded. A married woman, for instance, forgets her maiden name wonderfully soon. It is said that as much inconvenience was inflicted by the return from the Revolutionary to the Christian calendar in France, as by the converse operation. We feel no doubt that, if a few well-calculated, systematic, and decisive changes were introduced into the whole nomenclature of London, the inconvenience would be over in a few weeks or months, while the convenience would be almost incalculable.

Saturday Review, December 20, 1856.

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