Billiter Lane

Billiter Lane ran north-west from Fenchurch to Leadenhall, entirely in Aldgate Ward. Nearby landmarks included Blanch Appleton facing the opening of Billiter Lane on the south side of Fenchurch and Ironmongers’ Hall to the west of Billiter Lane on the north side of Fenchurch. Nearby churches were St. Catherine Cree on Leadenhall and All Hallows Staining adjacent to the Clothworkers’ Hall) and St. Katharine Coleman on Fenchurch. On the Agas map, Billiter Lane is labelled Bylleter la., although the name is hard to read because it runs north-west and is therefore nearly upside down from a reader’s perspective. In a 1653 edition of John Norden’s 1593 map, it is number 59, Billeter lane in the key (Norden). Prockter and Taylor normalize the spelling to Billiter Lane (26), as it was known until the nineteenth century. While the etymology of the street name may hint at the trade of its early residents, by Stow’s time the street was a place of social contrasts. On the west side of Billiter Lane, in the lee of a great house owned by the Clothworkers’ Company, was a row of shops and tenements that were occupied by widows and haunted by beggars. Stow glosses over the current state of the street by digging into the past, but evidence from other sources, including a 1612 ground plan by Ralph Treswell, suggests that Billiter Lane was a decaying street inhabited by inconsiderable people, as Strype was later to call them.
The name of the street suggests that it was home in the late middle ages to at least one maker (or founder) of church bells. Archeologists have found fragments of bell-mould in pits near what is now 4 Billiter Street (LAARC Online Catalogue). Stow believed that the name was Belzettars lane, so called of the first builder and owner thereof (Stow 1:138) and takes his spurious etymology as confirmation that streets names often derived by corruption from personal names (Stow 1:349). The examples Stow cites all show evidence of what linguists would call cluster simplification or cluster reduction. Kingsford corrects Stow’s etymology, noting that Belzeters means bell-founders; the first person to be described [in the Calendar of Wills in the Court of Hustings, London] as belyeter is William Burford of St. Botolph without Aldgate in 1390 (i.e., not a resident of Billiter Lane) (Kingsford 2.290). Ekwall traces the name from Belȝeterslane in 1298, to Stow’s belliter lane, to Billiter Lane in a 1666 entry of Pepys’ diary (113), the first surviving instance of the form that persisted until the nineteenth century. According to Ekwall, it means The bellfounders’ (or bell-founder’s) lane (113). Ekwall rightly records the possibility that the possessive in Belȝeters may be either plural or singular. We cannot know how many founders of bells lived in this lane. Al Smith confidently describes Billiter Lane as the street in which the belzeters or bellfounders lived and worked, adding the observation that as there were over 100 churches in the City at this time, the bellfounders had plenty to do (23). Bebbington, perhaps building on Smith, fancifully imagines that Employment for a whole streetful of bellmakers was provided by the 100 churches in the City (47). However, as Robert Worth Frank, Jr. notes, referencing Stahlschmidt, The demand for bells was not sufficient to supply steady work; consequently, the craft also made belt buckles, pails, and metal pots (526). That bellfounders were free of the Founders’ Company tends to corroborate that their work was varied in nature (Hadley 161; Hallett 170). Billiter Lane may have been home to one or more medieval bellfounders, but it is unlikely that Billiter Lane was a streetful of bellmakers, as Bebbington imagines. Furthermore, it was not the only place they lived and worked. Most of the bellfounders in medieval London lived in the wards of Aldgate and Portsoken. Frank’s article argues that Chaucer, who lived above Aldgate, knew the craft of bellfounding well enough to allude to it in his description of the Friar’s cope as being rounded as a belle out of the presse in the General Prologue of The Canterbury Tales (Frank 527). Kingsford quotes a 1540 reference to the Belfounders house in Houndsditch (2.288). By Stow’s time, there were no bellfounders in Billiter Lane. Bellfounding had been largely consolidated outside the Aldgate Bars on Whitechapel at the Whitechapel Bell Foundry, which was either the new home of a foundry that had been operating in Aldgate or a new venture (Hadley 161). (Those readers wishing to learn more about the craft of medieval bellfounding will want to consult Stahlschmidt’s book and essay. The Copper Development Association website has a page on medieval bellfounders that mentions the Billiter Lane site, but the source of their information is not documented.)
Stow has little to say about the 1598 inhabitants of Billiter Lane or their business, but his foray into the past exemplifies his general historical method. In the street-by-street survey of Aldgate Ward, Billiter Lane serves mainly as the hook on which Stow hangs an account of a recent archeological discovery that clearly fascinated him:
[B]etwixt this Belzettars lane and Limestreete, was of later time a frame of three fayre houses, set vp in the yeare 1590. in place where before was a large Garden plot inclosed from the high streete with a Bricke wall, which wall being taken downe, and the ground digged deepe for Cellerage, there was found right vnder the sayd Bricke wall an other wall of stone, with a gate arched of stone, and Gates of Timber, to be closed in the midst towards the streete, the tymber of the Gates was consumed, but the Hinges of yron still remayned on their staples on both the sides. Moreouer in that wall were square windowes with bars of yron on either side the gate, this wall was vnder ground about two fathomes [ten to twelve feet (OED)] deepe, as I then esteemed it, and seemeth to bee the ruines of some house burned in the raigne of king Stephen, when the fire began in the house of one Alewarde neare London stone, and consumed East to Aldgate, whereby it appeareth how greatly the ground of this Citie hath beene in that place raysed. (Stow 1:138–139)
We can identify four historical layers in this passage: the present (post-1590), in which this tract of land is now occupied by three fayre houses; the immediate past (pre-1590), manifest in the large Garden plot; a moment in the more distant past (1335), when fire consumed a large part of London; and a pre-fire past manifest in the stone wall, timber gates, iron hinges, and barred windows. The passage implicitly records shifts in architectural styles and building materials (from stone to brick), and in population density, from one great house to no house to three houses. (For further information on archeological findings in Billiter Lane, see McKenzie and Symonds.)
When Stow says little about the present state of a street, building, or site, turning to other sources will often confirm that Stow was idealizing London through omission. The only literary reference to Billiter Lane in EEBO-TCP (as of 2010) comes from Sir Thomas More’s attack on William Tyndale in The co[n]futacyon of Tyndales answere, the third in a volley of words between the Catholic heretic hunter and the first English translator of the New Testament. According to Tyndale’s biography in the ODNB, Tyndale is intemperately pilloried on almost every page of More’s Confutacyon (Daniell). One of More’s ad hominem attacks includes this reference to Billiter Lane: Now in dede to say the treuth yt was not well done of Tyndale to leue resonynge and fall a scoldyng, chydynge, and brawlynge, as yt were a bawdy begger of byllyter lane (More sig. Q1r). More was a Londoner, born in Milk Street and educated at St. Anthony’s School in Threadneedle Street, then at Oxford, the New Inn, and Lincoln’s Inn. As a married man, he lived at Old Barge, Bucklersbury, in the parish of St. Stephen Walbrook. Better known for his service to Henry VIII, and his subsequent disgrace and execution, he was also intimately involved in city politics. He served as under-sheriff of London in 1510 and was made free of the Mercers’ Company (House). He likely knew whereof he spoke, then, in placing bawdy beggars in Billiter Lane.
We do have a very detailed view of the west side of Billiter Lane in Ralph Treswell’s 1612 ground plans for the Clothworkers’ Company. The properties on the west side had been acquired by the Fullers’ Company from St. Mary Spital in 1520. The Fullers and the Shearmen formed the Clothworkers’ Company in 1528, merging their respective landholdings (Schofield 74). Visible from the street was a row of small houses that formed a screen (15) for the great house behind. At the time of Treswell’s survey the great house was rented from the Clothworkers’ by Sir Edward Darcy. The size of the building meant that it could pass easily in and out of use as a company hall (29), and it had indeed been used as such by the Fullers’ from 1520 to 1528. The great house was a unique structure, described by John Scholfield as one of the largest private houses [in London], notable also for its multiple gardens and tennis court (27, 28). This affluence would have contrasted sharply with the houses that formed the front to Billiter Lane, all of them multistoried one or two room structures that housed butcher shops, other shops, and private residences. Treswell’s plan gives the names of some of the tenants. Arthur Harrison, who sublet from Sir Edward Darcy, had the two adjoining plots on the corner of Billiter and Fenchurch, as well as the house on the west side of the Fenchurch gate into the great house. To the north of Harrison were Widow Kinricke, Brian Wilson, Harrison’s kitchen, two chambers leased by Sir Edward Darcy on either side of the Billiter Lane gate into the great house, Tho. Aldrige a shope (Treswell Fig. 21; omitted from the list on Schofield 75), Richard Harris’ butcher shop, John Dickman’s butcher shop, Widow Smith, Widd Gall in The Hall A Shope (Treswell Fig. 21; Schofield 75 attributes this house to Thomas Gall), and Widow Halliwell’s shop. At the time of Treswell’s survey in 1612, the buildings had been partly rebuilt in stages (Schofield 15) by the Clothworkers’ Company, who had noted in 1556–57 that some of the buildings were about to fall down (qtd. in Schofield 74).
The subsequent history of Billiter Lane suggests a street continuing to decay as the surrounding neighbourhood gentrified. The 1633 edition of A Survey, with Anthony Munday and Humphrey Dyson’s additions, simply reproduces the earlier description of Billiter Lane (Stow 1598, sig. N6v), as does Howell’s Londinopolis (Howell sig. H2v). However, looking back from the vantage point of 1720, Strype adds to Stow’s initial description the comment that it was A Place consisting formerly of poor and ordinary Houses, where it seems needy and beggarly People used to inhabit; whence the Proverb used in ancient Times, A bawdy Beggar of Billiter Lane, which Sir Thomas More somewhere used in his Book which he wrote against Tyndal (Strype 2.54; Weinreb and Hibbert quote part of this passage on Weinreb and Hibbert 66). The lane seems to have survived the Great Fire. Strype comments that the Ironmongers’ Hall situate in Fenchurch-street, hard by Billiter-Lane, had the good Fortune to escape the great Fire (5.193), and his account of Ealdgate Ward. Present State, comments on the run-down state of the buildings: This Street is of very ordinary Account, the Buildings being very old Timber Houses, which much want pulling down and new Building. While the beggars seem to have moved on, the Inhabitants of 1720 are as inconsiderable as small Brokers, Chaundlers, and such like. When Strype observes that ’tis great pity that a Place so well seated should be so mean (2.82), he is probably referring to the development of the great house and gardens formerly situated behind Ironmongers’ Hall on the Clothworkers’ land between Billiter Lane and Lime Street:
But the chief Ornament of this Place is Billiter Square on the West Side, which is very handsome, open, and airy Place, graced with good new Brick Buildings, very well inhabited; and out of this Square is a handsome Free Stone Passage called Smith’s Rents, which leadeth to Fenchurch Street, where there stands also good Houses. In this Street or Lane is Billet Court [i.e., Billiter Court (Harben, Billiter Court)] Court, which is both small and ordinary. (Strype 2.82)
Billiter Square can be seen on the Locating London website, which references John Rocque’s 1746 Map of London, along with Lime Street Square to which it connected. Smith’s Rents is not labelled on Rocque’s Map. For a time, Voltaire lived in Billiter Square (Williams).
Now known as Billiter Street, an alternate name in use by the early nineteenth century (Harben, Billiter Street; Ekwall 113), the EC3 street in London’s financial district is shadowed by tower blocks. It runs one-way northbound, accessible only from Fenchurch Avenue (a street that did not exist in Stow’s day). Access from Fenchurch Street is blocked off.


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MLA citation

Jenstad, Janelle. Billiter Lane. The Map of Early Modern London, Edition 7.0, edited by Janelle Jenstad, U of Victoria, 05 May 2022,

Chicago citation

Jenstad, Janelle. Billiter Lane. The Map of Early Modern London, Edition 7.0. Ed. Janelle Jenstad. Victoria: University of Victoria. Accessed May 05, 2022.

APA citation

Jenstad, J. 2022. Billiter Lane. In J. Jenstad (Ed), The Map of Early Modern London (Edition 7.0). Victoria: University of Victoria. Retrieved from

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Provider: University of Victoria
Database: The Map of Early Modern London
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A1  - Jenstad, Janelle
ED  - Jenstad, Janelle
T1  - Billiter Lane
T2  - The Map of Early Modern London
ET  - 7.0
PY  - 2022
DA  - 2022/05/05
CY  - Victoria
PB  - University of Victoria
LA  - English
UR  -
UR  -
ER  - 

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