1879: Stuff That Wouldn’t Fit: London Street Names: White Horse Street

Everything has a story behind it. Sometimes it’s a short one, and not very interesting, but London’s street names tend to avoid this, with peculiar tales and extended associations resulting in what looked like a sedate name being very much not so at all.

For example, let’s take White Horse Street, in Mayfair, Chelsea. Someone near and dear to my heart once had a print shop in the vicinity – John Rocque, one of the greatest of London’s mapmakers. The street name itself comes from the seal of the Royal House of Hanover, the ruling family of England for nearly two hundred years, from George I, crowned in 1714, up through our own Victoria, God bless her, current monarch of the United Kingdom in the game world. The arms of Hanover are complicated, as tends to be with royal houses, the Hanover arms in escutcheo over the quartered arms of England, Scotland, and Wales, Hanover’s own shield bearing the lions of England, the blue lion rampant of Luneburg, and the silver running horse of Westphalia. That horse, set in base in a shield tierced in pale, came to be the crest or emblem of the House, a visual quick reference if you will. The banner of the House of Hanover was simplified down to a rearing white horse on a red shield surmounted by a crown, over two horizontal stripes, the upper gold and the lower white. And yes, this is the short version – if I were to blazon the full arms of the House, it’d take this entire paragraph to describe in proper heraldic terms.

So why the white horse? Well, there’s the deeper and more interesting story. White horses have been power animals and symbols of myth in the north west of Europe for centuries. They figure into a number of legends. When the people of England discovered, a few thousand years ago, that there was chalk under the dirt, they started scraping away the soil to create giant drawings, pictures you’d need to be a few miles away or several hundred feet straight up to really appreciate. The oldest of these, the Uffington White Horse, takes up a hundred and twenty yards of hillside in Oxfordshire. It’s of a style associated with the very early Celtic and Pictish inhabitants of the island, and quite a bit different from the later horses that appear elsewhere. Every seven years, a festival is held around the Scouring of the Horse, where a volunteer workforce spends a few days clearing away the grass, pounding the chalk, and generally tidying up the gigantic artwork to keep it visible.

By comparison, the Westbury White Horse is a much more realistic representation, and relatively modern in origin. There doesn’t appear to be any documentation or other evidence suggesting the Westbury Horse existed before 1742. In 1778, it was restored, possibly damaging other work on the same hillside, and then in 1873 was remodelled, the effort being overseen by a committee (which rarely ends well). The Horse got edging stones put up to keep its outlines sharply defined, and in the process was reshaped substantially. The original looked a bit more like a dog with a saddle, while the 1778 recut gave it more or less the current shape. While we may do something with the Uffington Horse, in terms of ancient symbols that may or may not have a magical nature, the Westbury is just a nice bit of art on a hillside.

The simple fact that people went to all that trouble makes the story. It takes a crew to create such an artwork, and maintain it, and regular effort to keep it from being overgrown and covered by dirt washing down in the rains. The mythic connections flow up through history, were picked up by the House of Hanover, like all noble families anxious to tie themselves to a powerful legend and thus justify their rule, and people overcome with patriotic fervor looked at the Uffington Horse and said, you know, we could do one like that, but make it properly Hanoverian, and put it up on this hill in Westbury.

And a street in Mayfair carries the name of the mythic symbol. Just what sort of arcane shenanigans do you think might connect the street with Oxfordshire, the workplace of a mapmaker with the creation of a giant artwork three thousand years ago?

Tally Ho!