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Naming and numbering the streets of London

John Stow was writing about London's street names in 1598 when many were already ancient. Those who needed to know where they were did not need maps or lists to find them. 200 years later London had grown so large, that no one could be expected to find their way around without help. At some point, to make everyone's life easier, streets had their name written on the walls of buildings in each street and a number was assigned to each building by the authorities. This page describes how and when that process started.

The short answer

Westminster, the City of London and Southwark had together made up almost all of London for many years. There was no central control, each had its own laws, customs and culture. A good idea put into practice in one did not always lead to the others doing the same. They were often not on the same side in disputes.

In 1761 an Act covering Westminster was passed for paving, cleansing, and lighting.
In 1762 an amendment was passed to include the provision of street name signs.
In 1765 similar Acts covering both Southwark and the City of London were passed and given Royal Assent in 1766, these also provide for street name signs and for buildings to be numbered, but numbering may have been optional.
Possibly as early as 1790, but certainly by 1820, the naming and numbering was almost complete.

The long answer

Throughout most of the eighteenth century, the City of Westminster and the City of London were at war. Not a war of words, nor an armed conflict. It was an undeclared war. It did not cost lives, but every citizen paid a price in higher rates and new tolls. Fought on several fronts, with many battles, the objectives were to achieve supremacy in both business and gentrification. By the end, it was a draw and everyone eventually benefited.

Southwark, meanwhile, was too busy hosting Bull & Bear Baiting, Theatres and Legal Brothels, to bother with most of this.

In 1700, the City controlled the only bridge over the Thames in central London. All other travel across and along the river was a Royally granted monopoly in the hands of the Company of Watermen and Lightermen, a Guild controlled by City men. Westminster first applied to Parliament to allow them to build their own bridge in 1664 and were blocked. In 1722 they tried again. 14 years of wrangling later, they finally won approval and it opened in 1750. Not to be outdone, the City opened Blackfriars Bridge in 1769, closely followed by Westminster's Battersea Bridge in 1773. Compensation for any Guild member who might lose business as a result of these bridges was part of the negotiating process for getting them built.

The City's streets had grown entirely organically and haphazardly. They were generally too narrow for carriages to pass one another and often strewn with obstacles. Plans drawn up after the great fire of 1666 to rebuild with grand thoroughfares and plazas, based on Paris and Rome, were shelved in favour of getting back to earning money as quickly as possible. Whilst the City had little room for expansion, Westminster was growing apace into open fields. New, planned estates with wide streets and grand houses were attracting gentry and bourgeoisie who had cash to spend. Westminster did not want them to spend it in the City. If the rest of Westminster was more attractive and convenient, they would not be tempted to shop in the grubby, smelly, difficult to get to 'old' London.

In 1761 an act of Parliament enabling this was passed (Anno 2 George III CAP. 21). The next year an amendment was passed (Anno 3 George III CAP. 23) changing some clauses that had proved impractical and adding one (clause 8) allowing for signs 'to be engraved, painted or otherwise described, on Stone or Wood, to be affixed on a prominent Part of some House or other Building, at the End or Corner of each Square, Street or Lane, the Names by which such respective Square, Street or Lane, is usually or properly called or known'.

This is the very earliest reference to official street name signs I have found, although some streets and squares had already chosen to do this for themselves. The full name of this act and the page containing clause 8 follow.

An Act to explain, amend, and render more effectual an Act made in the last Session of Parliament, intituled, An Act for paving, cleansing, and lighting the Squares, Streets and Lanes, within the City and Liberty of Westminster, the Parishes of Saint Giles in the Fields, Saint George the Martyr, Saint George Bloomsbury, that Part of the Parish of Saint Andrew's Holbourn*, which lies in the County of Middlesex, the several Liberties of the Rolls and Savoy, and that Part of the Dutchy Lancaster which lies in the County of Middlesex, and for preventing Annoyances therein; and for other Purposes therein mentioned.

[*Holbourn was an older spelling. In this and the original act, Holborn is used.]
Click to enlarge

Almost immediately, the 'City of London and the Liberties thereof' sponsored a suspiciously similar Act that was passed in 1765 (CAP. 26).

Clause 24 of this Act reads 'And it is hereby further enacted, That the said commissioners shall and may cause to be painted, engraved, or described, in stone, or otherwise, and to be affixed in a conspicuous part of one or more house or houses, building, or buildings, at or near each end, corner, or entrance, of each of the said streets, lanes, squares, yards, courts, alleys, passages, or places, the name by which each respective street, lane, square, yard, court, alley, passage, or place, is properly or usually called or known; and may also cause every house, shop, or warehouse, in each of the said streets, lanes, squares, yards, courts, alleys, passages, and places, to be marked or numbered, in such a manner as they shall judge most proper for distinguishing the same: and if any person or persons shall wilfully and maliciously destroy, pull down, obliterate, or deface, any such name, description, marks, or numbers, or any part thereof, or cause or procure the same to be done: every person so offending, shall, for every such offence, forfeit and pay the sum of forty shillings.'*

* £367.11 at 2020 prices, according to the Bank of England inflation calculator.

Just before this, Southwark had done the same (CAP. 24) with 'An Act for paving the Streets and Lanes within the Town and Borough of Southwark, and certain Parts adjacent, in the County of Surrey, and for cleansing, lighting, and watching the same; and also the Courts, Yards, Alleys, and Passages, adjoining thereto; and for preventing Annoyances therein.' Both these Acts were given Royal Assent in 1766.

Clause 44 of this Act reads 'And be it further enacted by the authority aforesaid, That the said commissioners, or any five or more of them may order and direct the houses within the said streets and lanes, and within the said courts, yards, alleys, passages, and places, or any of them, to be numbered with figures placed or painted on the doors thereof, or in such other part of the said houses respectively as they the said commissioners, or any five or more of them, shall think proper; and may also order and direct to be engraved, painted, or otherwise described, on a conspicuous part of some house, or other building, at or near the end or corner of each street, lane, court, yard, alley, passage, or place, adjoining to, or being near, the said streets or lanes hereby directed to be regulated respectively, the names by which such respective street, lane, court, yard, alley, passage, or place, so adjoining, is usually or properly called or known; and if any person or persons shall wilfully or maliciously destroy, injure, obliterate, or deface, any such number, figure, name, or description, or any part thereof, or cause or procure the same to be done, and shall be convicted thereof by his or her own confession, or by the oath of one or more credible witness or witnesses, before one or more justice or justices of the peace acting in and for the said town and places, which oath the said justice or justices is and are hereby impowered to administer; every such person so offending shall, for every such offence, forfeit and pay the sum of forty shillings.'

These are the very earliest references I have traced to the official numbering of houses. I am not a legal expert, but it reads to me as if numbering is optional, not obligatory, 'may' is used rather than 'shall and may' used for street names (in the City).

John Noorthouck, in his book of 1773, 'A New History of London Including Westminster and Southwark' says of the difficulty of counting the number of houses in London that :-
'Were there any reasonable hopes that the late useful scheme of numbering the doors in streets, &c. would become universal, a more correct actual estimate might be taken than could be formed from any vague resources now in our power; but though the practice is adopted in most of the principal streets of London, and Westminster, as well as in many genteel parts of the suburbs; yet there is little likelihood of seeing it extend through the many populous working neighbourhoods in the out parts, necessary to render the scheme compleat.'

Richard Horwood's magnificent 'plan of London & Westminster, the borough of Southwark, and parts adjoining, shewing every house' was published in 1799, having been nearly ten years in the making. So clear is the detail that many of the streets show the numbers of all the houses, although he said in the prospectus that all streets would show them. Numbers above 10 are shown as 1, 2, 3 etc. until 20 etc., when they start again as 1, 2, 3 etc. This is explained as being to better facilitate changes in the future. The conclusion I draw from this is that numbering had become common by about 1789, but may not have been universal. It also seems to imply that changes had already been made, or were expected to be made later, to existing numbers.

Horwood 1799

⇧ Part of Horwood's 1799 plan showing unnumbered buildings in Great Bell Alley and Lothbury, for example. All of these have numbers by the time of William Faden's revised version of 1819 and I have not noticed any already shown that changed in the revision.

In 1810, John Lockie published his Topography of London. Started in 1803 it names and describes every street by reference to other streets. Here are three examples.

Keate Street, Spitalfields, the continuation of Thrawl Street entering by 208, Brick Lane.
Kemp's Court, Berwick Street, Oxford Street, at 89, three doors E. from Broad Street.
Kennet's Wharf, Upper Thames Street, at 66, opposite Garlick Hill.

After going to all that trouble, I feel he is unlikely to have used numbers that may be changed at any moment.

There seems to be a common assumption that when the Metropolitan Board of Works was created and made responsible for naming and numbering in 1857, a sudden wholesale rationalisation of numbering took place. I have little evidence of this. The renumbering I mostly have evidence for all took place when new numbers were given to houses in streets that were renamed as part of another. At some point, the Post Office insisted renumbering existing streets must stop. As is now the case, if say, 3 houses numbered 9, 11 and 13 are demolished and replaced by just one building, that building is numbered 9-13. If a new house is built in between, say, Nos. 8 and 10, it would be numbered 8A. This may well have been the case since 1857. However, at least one whole road was renumbered, as this letter to The Times demonstrates.

Sir, By order of the Metropolitan Board of Works, Oxford Street has recently been renumbered. It has been calculated that this will cost the inhabitants at least £10,000* of alterations to shop-fronts, stationery etc.
Henry Marshall 154 Oxford Street, London, Sept. 6 1881

* £1,243,441 at 2020 prices, according to the Bank of England inflation calculator.

Horwood's plan shows the numbers running on the north side in the Parish of St. Marylebone from 1 in the east to 245 in the west. On the south side, in the Parish of St. George, they run the other way, from 248 in the west to 440, almost opposite No. 1.
The post-WW2 Ordnance Survey map shows the numbers with evens on the north and odds on the south, as they are now. On the N. side even numbers run up to 556, at Marble Arch Station. On the S. side odd numbers run up to 527.

In 1896, No. 1 Marble Arch was readdressed as 558 Oxford Street. The owner must have been livid.

Broken Stone
an apparently irrelevant, but interesting aside

All the above Acts appointed different sets of Commissioners to raise money, plan and carry out these various improvements. In an 1826 Act of George IV (CAP. 78), the Commissioners for many previous Acts empowering Westminster improvements were relieved of their duties and their powers were re-vested in the 'Commissioners of His Majesty's Woods, Forests and Land Revenues'. This was part of a fairly new process to consolidate the administration and collecting of revenues into one organisation that is now called the Crown Estate.

The second part of this act also enabled this new body 'to convert the Carriage Pavement of such Streets, Squares, Circusses, Ways, Passages or Places into a broken Stone Road, commonly called or known as a Macadamized Road'. Provision was made for the residents in any given street to petition for this process to be reversed later, provided they were prepared to pay extra rates to cover the expense of new whole stone.

John McAdam's invention of a new road surface, the first improvement since Romans times, was widely adopted. It served very well until the end of the century, when Motor Cars begun to appear. Travelling at previously impossible speeds, these vehicles sucked up the fine stone that bound the surface together and threw it in the air as great clouds of dust. This weakened Macadam roads so much that they started to disintegrate. The problem was solved in 1902 by a Welshman, Edgar Purnell Hooley. He added Tar to the usual road mix and called it Tarmacadam.

Preventing Annoyances

All of the Acts mentioned above contain some sort of legislation for preventing annoyances. They range from water spouts that soak passers-by, to builders who slake lime in the street and barrows that are pushed along the pavement. Sometimes the fines for infringement were huge. The one annoyance that everyone agreed on, was anything that projected from buildings into the street. Signs were all ordered to be removed immediately, along with poles, brackets, fixed cranes and spouts. All liquids must run down a pipe to the ground. Signs may be re-fixed, but they must now be flat on walls.

This must have produced a dramatic effect on the streetscape, at a stroke changing the look of London forever and making life much more difficult if you were illiterate or innumerate. All Londoners had previously navigated using these signs. Crowder, the bookseller, was to be found 'at the sign of the looking-glass', Longman, 'at the sign of the Ship', etc. Where are they now?

This page, like many others on this site, is a work in progress and will be updated with new information as and when found. If you have such information, please contact me so that it can be shared with everyone.

Last updated 11/12/21


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