Matt Brown, Editor-at-Large of Londonist.com, debunks the capital’s most tenacious myths in his new book Everything You Know About London Is Wrong. In this guest post, he looks at some of the famous bits of trivia to do with London’s roads.
We all know that London’s streets are not really paved with gold, but they are lined with myths and misconceptions. Did you know, for example, that the M25 does not quite encircle London (it becomes an A-road over the Dartford crossing and several bits of London poke outside of the motorway)? Other roads are often known by the wrong name. There is, for example, no such street as Bond Street (only New Bond Street and Old Bond Street). The visitor will search in vain for the famous Petticoat Lane, which has officially been known as Middlesex Street for over 100 years. The Strand is officially just ‘Strand’, and King’s Road carries signs both with and without the apostrophe. What a muddle.
Black cab drivers must carry a bale of hay everywhere they go
This little nugget falls into the category of “ancient laws never repealed”. One can readily imagine a time when cabs were pulled by horses. A bale of hay would serve the equivalent role of diesel in the modern motor. Most cabbies I’ve asked about the legend chuckle to themselves and tell me it’s completely true. They’re still required by law to drive around with a block of hay in the boot. None of them do, of course.
The commandment seems to have no basis in law. The closest Westminster came to forcing bales of hay on cabbies comes in the London Hackney Carriage Act 1831. Section 51 of this Act concerns itself with the many ways that drivers might block the street -- one of which involves horse feed. Drivers must not:
. . . feed the Horses of or belonging to any Hackney Carriage in any Street, Road or common Passage, save only with Corn out of a Bag, or with Hay which he shall hold or deliver with his Hands
The Act does not require the cabman to carry any food at all, stipulating only that feeding must be done from the hand and not block the carriageway with bales or troughs. The penalty for such a misdemeanour was 20 shillings. If a modern cab driver attempted to place a bale of hay in front of her vehicle, her 20 shillings would be safe. The legislation was quashed as part of the Statute Law (Repeals) Act 1976.
There are no roads in the City of London
One of the great pieces of London trivia posits that the City of London contains not a single thoroughfare that carries the word “Road” in its name. You’ll find plenty of Streets, Hills, Alleys and Squares, but never a Road.
This was probably the case for much of London’s history. Until modern times, a street (from the Latin via strata meaning a laid-down way) was normally a paved thoroughfare within a town centre. A road, by contrast, usually led away from town (cf. the Uxbridge Road) or between nearby towns. The City of London has been densely settled for 1,000 years, so any roads such as City Road and Goswell Road begin outside its well-defined and ancient borders.
This was true up until 1994. In that year, boundary changes did away with centuries of tradition. The City expanded north to take in the Golden Lane estate. In doing so, it absorbed Goswell Road, bringing a road within the boundaries of the city for the first time. I’m told that the change was not made in ignorance, and that some members of the Corporation council argued vociferously for a name change, to preserve the historic absence, to no avail.
This overturned piece of trivia can still cling desperately to a life-preserving piece of pedantry. The boundary line runs along the middle of Goswell Road: the western half is in the Borough of Islington while the eastern half alone rests within the Square Mile. So it can still be said that there is not a single road in the City of London, merely a half road.