London’s oldest street sign?

WHERE is London’s oldest street sign? I am glad you asked, because it has been amusing me recently to track it down.

Of course, short of carbon dating, it is rather hard to be exact about the age of many. I am talking about the ones that actually have a date on them, although that does mean assuming the dates are accurate.

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Two of the easiest to find, quite close to each other, are ‘Cowley Street 1722’ and ‘Smith’s Square 1726’, in Westminster. Smith Square SW1 is famous for St John’s church, nicknamed ‘Queen Anne’s Footstool’ because of its four corner towers, and is also where the European Parliament and European Commission have their London offices. Cowley Street hosts the headquarters of the Liberal Democratic Party, which is why you may find a wandering policeman keeping an eye on you as you search for stray signs.

In Soho, you can find a lovely square plaque marking ‘Meards Street 1732’. It’s a lovely street, too, a quiet haven from the bustle of the rest of the area. Look out for the ‘Soho Nose’ nearby – that is another story.

Even older is the sign from ‘Chigwell Streate 1678’ which you will find on the corner of Chigwell Hill and The Highway E1. The Highway dates back to Roman times, as you might note by its straightness, and a Roman bath has been excavated alongside it.

In Covent Garden, you have to look very hard to spot ‘Yorke Street 1636’. Don’t go looking for York(e) Street, as it is now renamed Tavistock Street WC2. One very famous former resident of 4 York Street was Thomas de Quincey who wrote ‘Confessions of an English Opium Eater’ in 1821. High above his blue plaque you will spot the street sign. Its date, predating the Great Fire of 1666, makes it the oldest I have found so far in London.

The elephant who was shot 152 times

In 1676 a grand shopping precinct called Exeter Exchange opened in Covent Garden. Sadly for the developers, the expected influx of grand shops and customers never came. The building languished until 1773, when a menagerie was set up in the upper floors by a circus owner as winter quarters for his performing animals.

This was London’s first proper zoo to compete with the Royal Menagerie at the Tower of London (where ‘the Lions … are publicly washed every 1st of April’). It cost a shilling to see such then-exotic animals as a tiger or a hippopotamus – all kept in small iron cages. You could see: ‘Nero the largest Lion ever seen in the whole world, the Boa-constrictor and the laughing Hyena, Ourang Otang, Birds of Paradise, Ostriches and every living animal from the Jungles in the far East.’

But the star attraction was Chunee, an Indian elephant who had arrived in London in 1809 to star in the Theatre Royal and was then bought for £1,000 to promote the Exchange.

The poet Lord Byron wrote about visiting the Exchange in his diary for November 1813: ‘The elephant took and gave me my money again, took off my hat, opened a door, trunked a whip, and behaved so well, that I wish he was my butler.’

For 17 years Chunee was a familiar sight walking along the Strand every Sunday. However, suffering from a septic tusk, Chunee ran amok one Sunday in February 1826, killing a keeper. It was decided to put him down but two soldiers fired 152 musket balls into him with no effect. It took a sabre attached to an iron pole to finish him off mercifully. The noise of the guns and Chunee’s agonised trumpeting brought crowds who closed The Strand.

Hundreds paid to see his carcass, while his meat was sold off with a recipe for elephant stew. The skeleton was also sold at auction for £100 and went on display in the Royal College of Surgeons in Lincoln’s Inn Fields.

Chunee’s barbaric end and his living conditions were the subject of many letters of protest to The Times and helped lead to the founding of The Zoological Society of London in April 1826.

After Chunee’s death, Exeter Exchange fell out of fashion and was demolished in 1829. The Strand Palace Hotel now stands on the site. The animals were sent to a new home at the new London Zoo in Regent’s Park and to Surrey Zoological Gardens in Kennington.

In 1941, during the Blitz of World War II, the Royal College of Surgeons’ Hunterian Collection suffered a direct hit from a German bomb, destroying two-thirds, including Chunee’s remains.