English Phrases and Sayings About London History

historical phrases and sayings about London

Being nearly 2,000 years old, London’s long history has clearly influenced the English language. How many of these English phrases and sayings about London history do you know? From notorious prisons and mental asylums to palace guards, I’m sure you’ll recognise a few of them, but their origins might surprise you!

1. Bobby

Meaning: London Police officer.

Origins: When I was in secondary school, hundreds of years ago, I learned that London police officers were called Bobbies. I also learned they wore funny hats as helmets but was never told why they were called ‘Bobbies’. I never found out until I moved to London and kept seeing this sign for an old pub opposite Liverpool Street Station. 

Facade of the old Sir Robert Peel pub opposite Liverpool Street Station in London
This off license opposite Liverpool Street Station used to be the Sir Robert Peel pub

Being the starting point of my East London walking tours today, my first question to the participants always is: ‘Why do they call a London police officer a ‘Bobby’?’ Obviously, since the term Bobby isn’t used that much anymore, usually the only people who know the answer are as ancient as I am. 

Do you know the answer?

Well, let me help you out here. The slang term ‘Bobby’ comes from Sir Robert Peel, the Prime Minister who founded the London Metropolitan Police in 1829. For some reason in English, Robert is often abbreviated as Bob instead as Rob, just like Richard changes into Dick instead of Rick.

Besides Bobbies, London police officers were also called ‘Peelers’, but they didn’t teach me that in school in the Netherlands! 

2. Beefeaters

Illustration of an Beefeater, or Yeoman Warder at the Tower of London
A Yeoman Warder in Tudor State Dress (By Adam Cuerden, Detroit Publishing Company on Wikimedia Commons)

Meaning: Some of you might think it’s the name of a gin brand, but the guy on the bottle actually depicts a Beefeater. Officially called a Yeoman Warder, the term is used for guards at the Tower of London.

Origins: Now why on earth would palace guards be called Beefeaters?! Of course there are several theories for this. I always share the following two theories on my London walking tours. 

The first one is that the palace guards made enough money to buy beef, a luxury not everybody could afford in the past. Personally, I prefer the second theory which is that the guards had to sample the king’s food, which would include beef, to check if it wasn’t poisoned.

Related article: Top things to do near Tower Bridge and the Tower of London.

3. Sent to the Tower

One of the best things to do near Tower Bridge is to visit the Tower of London

Meaning: To be sent to prison.

Origins: Before the Beefeaters’ ‘workplace’, i.e. the Tower of London, became the popular London tourist attraction it is today, it was used for various purposes throughout its history. 

Most people know its function as a notorious prison for traitors and place of execution. Therefore, you can imagine being sent to the Tower was the worst sentence you could get.

Related article: Self-guided Historical Walk along ‘Secret’ London Landmarks.

4. Clink

Meaning: Slang for prison.

Origins: It’s believed that this slang term for prison comes from the Clink Prison in Southwark near London Bridge. While it’s a museum today, the Clink was a notorious prison which operated from the 12th till 18th century.

Although the most accepted theory is that ‘clink’ indeed derives from Clink Prison, it’s also thought that ‘clink’ is a mere onomatopoeia echoing the noise of the metal prison chains. It’s therefore a bit of a chicken and egg situation, but there’s definitely a clear relationship between the Clink Prison and ‘clink’ as a generic slang term for prisons.

dark scary looking tunnel near London Bridge with Clink Prison Museum at the end
(Photo: V&A Dudush on Wikimedia Commons)

Clink Prison is one of the attractions near London Bridge I mentioned in this related post: Top things to do near London Bridge.

5. Fleet Street

Meaning: British national newspapers and journalists.

Origins: In popular culture, Fleet Street is mostly known as the location of Sweeney Todd’s barbershop. However, this historical street in the City of London was once the world’s most important place for journalism. 

Photo of Fleet Street, London from c1890 looking towards St Paul's Cathedral
Fleet Street, c1890 (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Fleet Street has a long history of printing and publishing, starting with a printing shop that opened for business here in 1500. In 1702 the first British daily national newspapers was published from Fleet Street and they proved to be so successful, newspaper publishing became a booming business.

In the 20th century, the majority of the national newspapers were produced here. Although most of these businesses have moved away from Fleet Street since then, the street name is still used as a generic term for British newspapers and journalists.

Photo of Fleet Street, London from 2005 looking towards St Paul's Cathedral
Fleet Street, 2005 (Photo: Josep Renalias on Wikimedia Commons)

6. The Old Lady of Threadneedle Street

Meaning: Nickname for the Bank of England.

Origins: Threadneedle Street lies within the City of London, the historical and financial heart of London. The Bank of England has been located on Threadneedle Street for nearly 300 years now! 

The bank got its nickname in 1797, when it was ‘only’ just over a hundred years old. It was after this satirical cartoon by James Gillray was published.

Satirical cartoon illustrating the London saying The Old Lady of Threadneedle Street
Illustration by James Gillray (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Disapproving the introduction of paper money, the cartoon represents the bank as an older woman wearing a dress made of pound notes. Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger seems to be groping the woman, but if you look closely, you see he’s trying to grab the gold from her pockets.

At the time of this illustration, banks used to issue their own private bank notes, and people could exchange those notes for gold. But as Britain was involved in the American War of Independence at the time, the country’s gold reserves were running dry. Hence, the introduction of paper money, enabling people to exchanging their notes for gold. Eventually, the Bank of England had the sole right to issue bank notes and private British bank notes slowly disappeared.

7. Born within the sound of Bow Bells

Meaning: A criterium to denote cockneys, a native East Londoner.

Origins: The Bow Bells refer to the bells of St Mary-le-Bow church on the historical street Cheapside in the City of London.

St Mary-Le-Bow, London
St Mary-le-Bow, 2005 (Photo credit: Steve Cadman on Wikimedia Commons)

According to the saying, only Londoners who are born within earshot of St Mary-le-Bow can call themselves real cockneys. Originally, the term cockneys referred to all Londoners, but from the 19th century, it’s used to denote East Londoners specifically.

Perhaps this has to do with the distance the sound of the bells travels to today, which isn’t far at all. But in the past, when there were less high-rises and noise pollution, the sound of the bells could be heard for miles around.

8. Bedlam

Meaning: The generic term for mental asylums. The first predecessors of modern psychiatric hospitals were notoriously grim places.

Origins: Originally built in the 13th century in the area of present-day Liverpool Street Station, the Priory of St Mary of Bethlehem was a way to collect alms to fund the crusades to the Holy Land. It also took in people in need of a shelter or care, becoming a medieval ‘hospital’ in the 14th century. Different from modern hospitals, these “didn’t imply medical care, but simply meant ‘a refuge for strangers in need’. Those with nowhere else to go turned up at the priory’s doors.” (Source)

The name St Mary of Bethlehem, or Bethlem Hospital, was soon contracted to Bedlam. Taking in the poor and needy, who often suffered from mental illnesses, the hospital later became known as a specialised ‘insane asylum’. It even became the first institution to treat mental health patients in Europe.

In 1676, the hospital moved to Moorfields. Located in a building that “appeared so opulent that it was compared to none other than the Palace of Versailles”, it became a famous London tourist attraction. However, the way patients were treated was quite the opposite of its glittering outside.

Drawing of the Bethlehem Hospital London (1739)
Drawing of the Bethlehem Hospital London (1739) by William Henry Toms (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

The controversial methods used at the time would be called downright cruel today. If it hadn’t been reality, you’d think the stories came from the sadistic horror franchise Saw! And to make things even worse, the suffering patients could be viewed by paying visitors. Synonymous with madness and mayhem, we still use the term ‘Bedlam’ in these meanings hundreds of years later. 

9. Barking Mad

Meaning: Insane.

Origins:  According to some, the term ‘Barking mad’ originated in the East London neighbourhood of Barking. More specifically, it’s thought to be related to Barking Abbey and its medieval asylum for the insane. 

However, others claim that the term didn’t come in use till much late and that it originated in 1920s America when a news article covered a ‘barking mad’ auto-polo event. (Source) But for the sake of this blog post, I’ll just pretend its origins lie in London anyway 🙂

Barking Abbey, London
Barking Abbey (Source: MRSC on Wikimedia Commons)

You see that most of these metaphors, phrases and sayings about London are rather grim. Mostly related to crime and insanity I wonder if there are more cheerful phrases about London I’m not aware of. If you know any, please share them in a comment below!
And if you’re for a challenge, try writing one sentence using all these nine terms.
Looking forward to hearing from you, Zarina xx

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Photo credit featured image: Abi ismail on Unsplash.

7 thoughts on “English Phrases and Sayings About London History

  1. Leuke post, ik houd ervan om er achter te komen waar bepaalde uitdrukkingen, (spreek)-woorden en gezegdes vandaan komen. Indertijd had ik een vriendje die een echte Cockney was, ‘born under the sound of Bow Bells’, hij was er best trots op! Ik ben het nooit vergeten. Ik kende niet alles wat je hierboven noemde maar had toch een aardig aantal goed!
    Dankjewel! xx

  2. Love this post! There are so many fascinating quirks about London, and yes, you are right that most are grim! Despite all that, it’s still my favourite city 💕 lol

  3. Some of my favourites:

    “Wouldn’t give the time of day”
    There were two neighbouring vicarages in Bermondsey where the vicars fell out. One of the churches had a clock tower mainly benefiting residents of the enemy vicarage so the vicar with the clock painted the face black rendering it unreadable.

    “Bakerloo line”
    Baker Street to Waterloo.

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