The Wild History of Whitecross Street

Today many of you may know Whitecross Street for its vibrant international food market which is super popular with the local workers during the week and also for its annual street art festival which takes place every July.

That event is one of the few opportunities where street artists can paint on the walls without fear of recrimination, and along the street you’ll find the likes of Conor Harrington, Urban Solid, Paul ‘Don’ Smith and DS Solid have left their mark.

Further works now adorn the side of the Peabody Housing Estate, and they certainly bring a splash of colour and imagination to the area, and walking along Whitecross Street feels like you are passing through an outdoor art gallery.

Check out these works by Otto Schade, Boxhead, Inkie, Zadok, Airborne Mark, Nathan Bowen

These central pieces are from 2018's festival which celebrated 100 years of the Female Vote - Roo’s Elephant symbolising female strength and unity, Goya Torres' Signature work Face, Artista and one other work (?)

Moving back in time, it may not surprise you to know that this street was named after a stone white cross which once stood here as early as the 15th century. White stone crosses often represented the jurisdiction of the Knights Hospitallers – a wealthy religious order at the time – with the four arms representing the four virtues of prudence, temperance, fortitude and justice.

At one point the Hospitallers controlled Malta, and the Maltese Cross owes its history to the religious order, hence the similarity. Incidentally, if you are keen to delve into the order’s fascinating history, you can visit the Museum of the Order of St John in nearby Clerkenwell (below image).

Peeling back the veneer of modern hipster morality, this street’s history paints a picture of a place which has struggled to live up to those four Christian virtues!

A 17th century ballad went like this: ‘In Whitecross Street and Golden Lane do strapping lasses dwell, and so do there in every street, twixt that and Clerkenwell’

One such strapping lass was the notorious Priss Fotheringham who in around 1660, after a career of working in brothels, set herself up as the madam of the The Six Windmills tavern on the corner of Whitecross Street and Old Street. 

Shutter Art on Whitecross Street

During her younger years, she was described as ‘the second best whore in the city’, and gained great fame from her skill at the ancient art of ‘chucking’, where she would stand on her head, naked, and customers would throw coins into what at the time was known as her ‘commodity’. Not surprisingly this form of entertainment proved spectacularly popular, and the tavern became known as the ‘half crown chuck office’.

The 17th century also saw the street develop as one of London’s foremost Sunday markets. Being just outside the walls of the City of London, it thrived despite many God-fearing folk considering having a market on the Sabbath to be ‘vulgar’. It attracted working class people known as costermongers’ which translated into modern language means apple seller.

Over time, almost certainly to protect themselves from the law, they developed a secret language whereby they spoke words backwards – ‘boy’ became ‘yob’, table – ‘elbat’, and ‘penny’ – ‘yennap’. Alongside this they also developed a language we still know of today, called rhyming slang, which included phrases like ‘rubbedy dub’ for pub, and ‘trouble and strife’ for wife!

By the 19th century, following an article written by one of the first investigative undercover journalist James Greenwood which shocked the readership, Whitecross market became associated with poverty and alcohol, and was known as the ‘squalors market’.

So perhaps it could be argued that with so much law breaking and raucousness, Whitecross Street could be seen as an ideal place for a jail… In 1813 a debtor’s prison was built here to house up to 500 inmates and ease crowding in Newgate Prison in the City of London.  But given that at this time you could be imprisoned for stealing a shilling or a sixpence, it is estimated that over 2000 people passed through these doors each year, and once incarcerated it was notoriously difficult to get out.

Newgate Prison

Fortunately once a year according to the 17th century Will of Nell Gwynne, prostitute turned favoured mistress of King Charles II, a sum of £20 was given to inmates of the prison to release them from jail on Christmas Day. By 1869 it was no longer possible to imprison people for debt, and the following year the jail closed down.

Today Whitecross Street really feels like a sanitised shadow of its former wild days, with even the anti establishment ethos of street art now here being challenged by being officially sanctioned and controlled by Islington Council. So maybe the four virtues of the ancient white cross are finally being fulfilled!

With thanks to Clerkenwell & Islington Guiding Association and the English Hedonists for providing the inspiration to write this article. 

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