25 phrases and street names that reflect London's port history

It can be easy to run around any city without taking in the meaning behind place and street names. Here we unpack London's history as trading centre through common phrases and street names

The English language is ‘full to the gunnels’ with words and expressions that have roots in the past. In many instances they outlive the social, cultural, and historical origins that brought them into common usage. Similarly, we are surrounded by streets and buildings named after people, places and events that have long since passed.

Applied to new contexts, the meaning of metaphors and colloquialisms is maintained within everyday speech without the need to know their origin, just as we can navigate busy cities without knowledge of what or whom streets are named after. But if we delve a little deeper, language and place naming offer valuable insights into our cultural heritage.

The current exhibition at Museum of London Docklands, London: Port City, includes an interactive exhibit which sheds light on words, expressions and place names rooted in London’s history as a centre for maritime trade.

From Cockney rhyming slang and nautical idioms to East End streets and pubs, they remind us of the vibrant and integral role seafaring and the docks have played in London life and their enduring impact on language and place naming.

  1. 'Sling your Hook'

Meaning ‘go away’, this expression is thought to originate from the anchor (the ‘hook’) being put in its cradle (a ‘sling’) when a ship left the harbour. 

  1. 'Had your Chips'

Meaning your luck has run out, this saying is often associated with gambling chips. Although another theory originates from dock workers being allowed to take home off-cuts of timber, known as ‘chips’, a perk that could be withdrawn if too many were taken. 

  1. 'Full to the Gunnels'

The original spelling is ‘gunwales’, which are the upper edges of the side of a boat. Originally meaning a fully loaded ship, it has come to mean anything at full capacity.

  1. 'Tie Up Loose Ends'

Used metaphorically to mean finishing off a project or task, this expression originally related to the rigging on boats, which needed to be checked and secured before setting sail.

  1. 'Fend off' 

Now used to mean defending oneself from attack or criticism, this was once a common term for avoiding contact with another boat or dock by pushing off with your feet, hands or a hook.

  1. 'Fathom out' 

Meaning to work something out, this expression originally referred to calculating the depth of water beneath a ship using a weighted rope. This was measured in ‘fathoms’ (from the Anglo Saxon ‘faedm’, to embrace) which are six feet, the average distance of a sailor’s outstretched arms.

  1. 'Tilbury Docks' 

Tilbury Docks became Cockney rhyming slang for sock, while 'Surrey Docks' was assigned to pox, ‘boat race’ to face, and ‘steam tug’ for mug.

  1. 'Crack on' 

Meaning to get on with something, or someone, this expression was used at sea in reference to the loud noises made when the straining sails were eased in order to speed up.

  1. 'Bilge' 

Used as slang for talking nonsense, it refers to the filthy residue that would collect and slop around in the bilge, the lowest point at the curved bottom of a ship.

  1. 'Ton' 

A ‘tun’ was originally an English unit of liquid volume, rather than weight. Casks, known as ‘tuns’, typically held 252 gallons of wineand this became a measure of a ship's weight capacity.

  1. 'Scuppered' 

A ‘scupper’ is the opening in the side of a ship which allows water to run off. One theory on how the verb came about—meaning stuck or ruined—is the plight of someone ending up there if washed overboard.   

  1. 'Posh' 

One theory is that P.O.S.H. was printed on first class passenger tickets to and from India to indicate ‘port out, starboard home’, which was the most comfortable accommodation due to the position and heat of the sun.

  1. 'Saltwell Street' 

This street in Poplar is believed to be named after the captain who brought the first ship into East India Docks in 1806.

  1. 'Peruvian Wharf' 

Named after ‘Peruvian Guano’ (bird poop!) which was shipped here in the 19th century for use in farming as a fertiliser.

  1. 'Mudchute' 

The former dumping ground for mud dredged from Millwall Docks from the 1870s, creating a stinking area known by locals as ‘mud shoot’.

  1. 'Chelsea' 

Meaning ‘landing place on the river’, the Old English word ‘hyth’ was added to the end of many place names in London. Chelsea was known in the 8th century as ‘Chelchythe’, meaning ‘landing place for chalk or limestone’, which was shipped there up the Thames from Kent.

  1. 'Westferry' 

The DLR station and road get their name from the ferry that crossed the Thames between Poplar and Rotherhithe in the late 19th and early 20th century.

  1. 'West India Quay'

This DLR station is named after West India Docks, a complex of docks, quaysides and warehouses which opened on the Isle of Dogs in 1802 to import and store goods from the West Indies.

  1. 'East India Dock Road'

Stretching from Limehouse to Canning Town, this street is named after the East India Docks, built in the early 19th century to handle imports including tea, spices and silk. The name came from the East India Company, founded in 1600 for the exploitation of trade from Southeast Asia.

  1. 'The Old Salt Quay'

This pub marks an area in Rotherhithe long associated with dock-related pub names, including the Waterman's Arms, Kings Mills Wharf, The Surrey Commercial Dock Tavern and Spice Island.   

  1. 'Canton Street' 

Limehouse basin

            A reminder that this street in Limehouse was once at the heart of London’s first Chinatown, a thriving dockside community from the late 19th century to the 1930s.

  1. 'Amoy Place' 

            This small street in Limehouse gets its name from Amoy (today Xiamen) on the east coast of China, which was the main port for shipping tea to Europe in the 19th century.

  1.  'Malabar Street'

    This road was renamed in the late 19th century to reflect the import of spices into West India Dock. Malabar, on the southwest coast of India, had been renowned for trading spices for thousands of years. 

  2. 'Nutmeg Lane' 

            Along with Clove Crescent and Coriander Avenue, this is one of a network of streets in Poplar named after spices once imported and stored in large warehouses in the area.

  1. 'Milligan Street' 

    Robert Milligan was a Scottish merchant and slave owner, instrumental in the construction of West India Docks. This street in Limehouse reminds us of the omissions and injustices in legacies of place naming and the nuances of culture this reflects. 

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