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Bedfordbury

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Bedfordbury
Bedfordbury

As a suffix to place names it is Anglo-Saxon for ‘fortified place’; this is often attested but given the history of the area must be erroneous. More likely it is a self-congratulatory pun since at one time in the early nineteenth century there were six pubs on the street and in contemporaneous slang, fortified was a favourite euphemism for drunk. By coincidence the land on which Bedfordbury now stands was also an ancient burial site; however this would have had no bearing on the name of the street.

In days gone by Bedfordbury was considered very much the worst and most revolting of all of Victorian London’s many bad and revolting streets. The festering reaches of foetid Bedfordbury are chronicled by George Augustus Sala in his ‘Twice Around the Clock’, published in 1859: ‘There is a wretched little haunt called Bedfordbury, a devious, slimy little reptile of a place, whose tumble-down tenements and reeking courts spume forth plumps of animated rags, such as can be equalled in no London thoroughfare. I don’t think there are five windows in Bedfordbury with a whole pane of glass in them. Rags are hung from poles, like banners from the outward walls. There is an insolent burgher of Bedfordbury, who says I owe him certain stivers. Confound the place! its rags, its children, its red herrings and its turpentine-infected bundles of firewood!’

Two years after this was published, 800 of the estimated 2000 poor living in the slums of Bedfordbury were rehoused by the mission house pictured above. In Sala’s age Bedfordbury was a central thoroughfare through seven courts of which five remain in a very much more savoury guise. Chymister’s Alley, and Pipemaker’s Alley made way when the American philanthropist George Peabody chose this street to provide his altruistic alms and The Peabody Trust retains a presence on the street with Duval Court and Davey’s Court which was erected in 1982.

Another protagonist of change associated with Bedfordbury is Quintin Hogg, not the former cabinet minister but the educational reformist (and England half back in the earliest football internationals when we played with a 1-1-8 formation*). Hogg took pity on the gamins of Bedfordbury. It is said that on seeing two urchins gambolling in rags in the street, he asked, “Tell me what do you know about God?” on receiving the reply: “Why, that’s the chap wot sends us to ’ell.” he was moved to pity and forever after spent his leisure hours teaching children how to read and encouraging them to better themselves.

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