What’s in a London name? David finds out

David’s been diving again. Diving for pearls in London lagoons nobody else knows about.

And sure enough, he scored. Found twenty-five of them. Brought them up. And here they are. Never been seen before.

Ok, that’s a fanciful way of saying I’ve been doing some primary documents research. London documents. And have made some pretty special finds. Satisfying in so many ways, one of them being this is our secret, yours and mine. Nobody else has been where I’ve been the last couple of days, nobody else will have seen this stuff. (I like seeing stuff other people don’t get to see.)

And that’s all I’m going to say by way of introduction. Ok, maybe a couple of quotes: “suddenly, there it was, staring me in the face” and “Stranglers, London” and “their never-ending reproductive capacity” and “there’s a lot of London flavour here” and  “the perpetual-motion machine from hell.”

And that’s all. You can listen if you want. Or, if you’d rather read it, here’s the transcript.

TRANSCRIPT

London calling.

David here.

Out of left field, this one. 

London Telegraphic addresses. 

Huh? You might well, huh? 

Telegraphic addresses are history now. History that’s largely forgotten. 

But if you’ve got a taste for the quirky, the quixotic – the London quirky – they’re more than a little fun. 

And they’re instructive: they tell us a good bit about our town back then. And as it turns out – about our town today. There’s a lot about long-forgotten London telegraphic addresses that’s awfully familiar. And it’s not just London of yore that telegraphic addresses shed light on – they also shine a light on our fellow Londoners back then. The people whose turn it was before us. And, sure enough, we see ourselves – our behaviour – in them.

Now this might be self-indulgent, but I’m going to chart how I got here, how I got to London telegraphic addresses. Doing a podcast about them. 

Like Hansel, I’m going to follow the bread crumbs in the moonlight. Through the enchanted forest better known as London. 

The jumping-off point was going on Karen’s Inside Covent Garden Virtual Tour a few nights ago. 

One of the important stops on her route is Maiden Lane, which runs parallel to The Strand, one block north of it. 

(Historical-lexical aside here: are most of you aware that the word ‘block’ in that sense is an Americanism? The Oxford English Dictionary, pursing its lips here, stiffly defines it as: “the quadrangular mass of buildings included between four streets.” And for the record, sure enough, the earliest known use of the word ‘block’ in that sense comes out of Philadelphia in the year 1796.)

Anyway, yes, Maiden Lane is one block north of the Strand. Halfway up to the Covent Garden Piazza.

And it’s not just one stop on Karen’s Inside Covent Garden Tour, it’s two. Both of them great fun. 

The big hitter of the two stops is Rule’s Restaurant, London’s oldest restaurant. 

Somehow – it was a miracle then and it still is a miracle – Karen talked Rule’s into letting her bring her walkers inside. And not just barely over the threshold – five feet through the front door for a quick peek and back out you go. They’re in there for a good 30 minutes. And they’ve given Karen and her walkers full access. The run of the place. All three floors. It’s a Behind Closed Doors tour de force. No other groups – let alone the general public – are allowed in there. They’re setting up for the day and their classy old restaurant is anything but a public thoroughfare. Karen’s walkers get to see parts of that restaurant that even their diners don’t get to see. So, yes, a tour de force. Of its kind – cracking open closed doors – it’s probably the single most magnificent feather in that particular London Walks cap. 

Anyway, that stroll along Maiden Lane to Rule’s got this old London Walks warhorse pawing the ground. When Karen bade us farewell I decided to poke around a bit more in Maiden Lane. Even though, yes, I guide it myself. Know quite a bit about it. But Karen’s tour, well, it was like blowing on a dying ember in a fireplace. The feeling you get from watching that glow brighten up, that’s the best kind of “burn, baby, burn.”

So I started panning. (Yes, that was a metaphorical gear shift.) 

I started panning and sure, enough, almost immediately there’s a speck of gold. And there was more where that one little speck came from.

The speck of gold was that 120, 130 years ago Maiden Lane was chock-a-block with theatrical agencies. Makes sense when you think about it. Right there, not a stone’s throw away on The Strand and the Aldwych and Drury Lane – and nearby on St. Martin’s Lane and Charing Cross Road – were a dozen or more theatres. They’re still there. So Maiden Lane is just off-stage, as it were. The perfect situation for a theatrical agency. A troop of theatrical agencies. Birds of a feather and all that. 

Then more specks of gold: the endless ads for chorus girls and other pantomime performers, etc. There weren’t enough of them. They couldn’t get enough of them. And suddenly, there it was: staring me in the face. Theatre was different in those days. In musicals and pantomimes there were three different “categories” of performers: the principals, the singers and the dancers. If you were a singer you weren’t a dancer. And vice versa. Today, you’re both. Everybody has to be able to do everything. One consequence of that, the shows we see today have much smaller companies than their predecessors a century and more ago.

Now having that come into focus was ok, but what I enjoyed more was when I got to the bottom-line of those ads: Telegraphic Addresses. And what fun they are.

Now I suppose I was primed to have a soft spot for them because of a moment on my Hampstead walk. There’s an old “ghost sign” on a shop up there. It’s a survival, a relic from the past. And easy to miss so I always make sure everybody’s gaze gets zero’d in on it. The sign reads: HAM 9932. It is of course an old, old telephone number. And every time I see it I can’t help but think: ‘something’s been lost in our digital era’. 07956 – 381 – X-X-X. What does that tell you other than that it’s someone’s cellphone number in the UK. It’s bland. It’s colourless. It’s odourless. It’s cold and unfeeling. Robotic. But HAM 9932 – HAM is of course short for Hampstead. You rang that number you knew you were ringing someone in Hampstead. You wanted to ring Buckingham Palace it was VIC followed by four digits. VIC for Victoria. You wanted to ring someone in Bloomsbury it was MUS followed by four digits. MUS for British Museum. HAM 9932, VIC 1234, MUS 5678 – they’re like comfortable, much loved old bedroom slippers, those telephone numbers. Whereas 07956-381XXX – well, have you you read Kafka’s The Castle? It’s a book about alienation. About unresponsive bureaucracy. This beginning to sound familiar? It’s a book about the frustration of trying to conduct business with non-transparent, seemingly arbitrary controlling systems. You got it – Phone numbers as we know them are right out of Kafka’s Castle. Faceless, relentless, mindless, zombie-like – their never-ending reproductive capacity the perpetual-motion-machine from hell. They’re unique all right but snowflakes they’re not.  

So, yes, I’m a big fan of old telephone numbers.  I’m charmed by them. I have a soft spot in my heart for them. 

It was on the cards, then, that I was going to welcome telegraphic addresses to that party.

London’s like that. You poke around in the woods and suddenly you hit a wonderful berry patch. Thanks to Karen’s Inside Covent Garden Virtual Tour I chanced on a berry patch of glorious telegraphic addresses. And here I am, a day or two later, fingers and shirt and mouth stained with goodness. 

Ok, we’ve come through the woods – I’ve brought you back to that berry patch I found. Let’s have a look, have a sniff, have a taste. There’s a lot of London flavour here.

Arguably the most famous London telegraphic address is Everything, London. It’s the telegraphic address for Harrods. You can see they had a decision to make with that one. Perhaps the coldly logical – the obvious thing to do – would have been to use their name as their telegraphic address. Harrods, London. That’s what their neighbour Harvey Nichols did. The Harvey Nichols telegraphic address was, yes, Harveys London. The Times newspaper’s telegraphic address was Times, London. 

Times, London. That’s a Rock of Gibraltar of a telegraphic address. Harrods, London would have been of that order. But Everything, London is, I think, better. It says, “our name is so well known we don’t need to say it.” It says, “we’re not just a big shop in Knightsbridge, we’re Everything, London.” To my ear – and this is one of those matters that’s of course open to debate – if Times, London is a Rock of Gibraltar. Everything, London is Mount Everest. 

Or how about this one? Firm’s long gone, completely forgotten. But they sure swung for the fences with their telegraphic address. You have to admire them. The firm was the Allan Line Passenger Booking Office. Their telegraphic address was Everywhere, London. (Come to think of it, Everywhere, London is a telegraphic address that’d be right at home here – it’s a banner we’d be more than happy to run up the London Walks flagpole.)

And you want one that resonates with charm, you can’t do better than the telegraphic address of the legendary, the centuries-old Whitechapel Bell Foundry. Chimings, London. How perfect is that. 

Or a certain Charles Hall and Co. Their line was boots. They made boots. They didn’t have the name recognition of The Times – or Harvey Nichols. So when they grabbed the telegraphic address Tenderfeet, London – well, they didn’t put a foot wrong. 

Or Aldous Son and Co. They were ventilating and sanitary engineers. You could reach them at – wait for it – Exhaust, London. 

And the Anglo-Swiss Condensed Milk Company for sure had somebody who got it about the power of words, of favourable associations. Their telegraphic address was: Milkmaid, London.

There was a nurse’s agency that knew what it was doing when they bagged Divine, London.

No nonsense, engine-room, serious, workaday, hard-edged London – that was the world of shipping. London as a port. There wasn’t a lot of fancy footwork there in the matter of telegraphic names. They just went for what it was, what they did. 

Towboat, London. Towage, London. Skiffs, London. Telegraphic addresses that left nobody in any doubt about what they were all about. 

I suppose there may have been just a hint of glamour in the telegraphic address Arrival, London. It was the address of a steam and ship broker. But hey, Arrival, London that’s 99 parts hard fact to one part glamour.

What about Thomas Cook, you ask. Well, they were in Fleet Street – in newspaper-land, teller of tales London, make up stuff London – rather than down on the waterfront in gritty, hardcore London. They were a travel agent. The world’s first travel agent. They hit on a telegraphic address that said, “we got a deal for you.” Coupon, London. 

My favourites though – apart from Chimings, London – were the telegraphic addresses on Maiden Lane. 

Maiden Lane, back where we started. The telegraphic addresses of those theatrical agencies. They’re fun. But you sure can smell the greasepaint. And what I like about them is they’re unashamed about it. 

Footlights, London, for example.

Or Impressario, London.

Or Stagery, London. 

Or Popular, London.

Or Stagedoor, London.

Or dramatique, London.

Or Theatricals, London. (They were a wig supplier).

The Cinderella in the group was Cleaning, London. They were a theatrical cleaning and dyers outfit.

But for one that you’d be sure to pick out of the chorus line – that you sure weren’t going to forget – Stranglers, London gets my vote. That was the Arthur Shirley’s Plays agency. (Note to self”: find out who Arthur Shirley was. Was he a long-forgotten playwright? Or an agent?) 

But in the horse race in my head, it’s the variety agents – that make the running. 

In third place: Squeak, London.

In second place: Slick, London.

And the winner is – FIDGETY LONDON. 

Coda time. I started this by saying these long-forgotten telegraphic addresses tell us a lot about our town back then. And about our fellow Londoners back then. And that we can see ourselves in them. What they were getting up to, how they comported themselves when they took their turn on the catwalk, well, it’s so familiar, isn’t it? It’s us.

We can turn to Shakespeare here. As always. “What’s in a name?” Romeo asks. “What’s in a name?” Well, rather a lot. The single most powerful word in all of our lives is our name. Think about the instinctive reaction we all have – how we jerk our heads about – when our name is called. Even – as happens from time to time – when it’s not us being addressed. But a stranger in our general direction who also happens to have our name. 

And indeed how important it is to have a name we like, are comfortable in. I found out years ago that my name, David, is an old Hebrew name and it means “the beloved.” I liked hearing that. Somehow I’ve always felt that in some very real sense the name I was given set me up very nicely.

Or think of the trouble people go to to come up with a good Instagram or Twitter or Facebook handle. 

No question about it, here – at London Walks – we rejoice in the name London Walks. And as for getting the URL walks.com – well, in this game that’s as good as it gets. Being able to say, “our email address is: london@walks.com” – to paraphrase an expression that’s well and truly current these days, we won it, we’re glad to own it. 

And now I”m going to hit a button and send this cable, this telegraph, on its merry way. Consider it a late Christmas present, like a box of chocolates. London chocolates. One of them called Chimings, London. Another Milkmaid London. Another Divine, London. Another Popular, London. Another Everywhere, London. 

Enjoy.

Good night. And good Londoning.

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