Earlier this week I was enjoying a Serial Writing masterclass, run by The People’s Friend fiction editor Shirley Blair and author Alison Carter. The fun and games were held at The People’s Friend London HQ on Fleet Street (oh the vibes!) The PF has dedicated itself to publishing short stories for their readership since 1869 – quite an achievement in this digital age! So when I signed up I had absolutely no idea what to expect or what would be expected of me as a writer. Certainly The Friend is a niche market but all us eager beaver authors attending were told that the readership is expanding and boundaries are being gently nudged. Ideas were soon buzzing around the room and I came home with lots of writery thoughts to help me through the dark days of winter. It was during lunch however that I snapped this photo – not just because it made me smile but because I am a great supporter of The British Hen Welfare Trust, a charity which saves hens from an early death by re-homing them once they leave the egg-farming industry. We have had many hens rampaging through our garden over the years all of course with the most ridiculous names, Brian, Kevin and Cinderella amongst many.
But I digress. Hen and Chicken Court, just off Fleet Street. A fairly obvious medieval name for a court or lane, I thought, but was amazed when a google search threw up information about the very same place as being where – allegedly – Sweeney Todd the Demon Barber practiced. Well who’d have thought. Talk about material for a short story. For those new to the ghastly tale of Sweeny Todd, is was said that whilst shaving his customers he would slit their throats and hand their bodies over to his lover who, clearly counting the pennies, would take the best bits and serve them up in her pies. Blackadder’s Mrs Miggins will never seem the same again. Documents tell us that Mr Todd was a real person, being born in 1759 in Stepney, East London, and was hanged for a murder – whether he really did murder more than one person – his customers in this case – and have them wrapped in short crust pastry and gravy – is another matter, but it makes for a great urban myth that is still going strong today. Funny too, that it is a two minute walk from The Royal Courts of Justice.
You’d think that such a street name would come from a local hostelry, but this is debated. There might once have been a pub nearby, there might not – but it would seem unlikely if there wasn’t. Mind you, it would have to be a very small one – a quick look down the court told me it was indeed a tiny little place, no more really than an alley. However ‘hen and chicken’ when used together were slang terms for the pots used to hold alcohol, so maybe there is a connection. But anyway… this all links back to the opening of this little blog and a discussion we had about settings and place names. How realistic do they need to be? Well, as we know, many streets, lanes, alleys, and possibly some towns are named after their environment – Whale Beach and Obelisk Beach for example (Obelisk being listed as a clothing-optional beach) in Australia.
But as always, that fiend, Research, has taken me down a different path to one intended when I set about writing this; from The People’s Friend to a nudist beach in Australia. I don’t know how these things happen, I really don’t.