People walking along this street adjoining the Tower of London – these days dominated by Pret a Manger and Wagamama – are unlikely to notice its unusual name. It is called “Petty Wales” and is in exactly the same place as it was over 400 years ago, as can be seen from the Agas map insert above.
Most Londoners know that Petty France, where the Passport Office used to be, is so called because of the number of French people – mainly Huguenots – who settled there. But how many know about Petty Wales (a curious Franglais word), and what on earth is it doing next to the Tower of London?
There are a number of roads called Petty France in the UK (including two in London), but it appears there is only one Petty Wales anywhere and it is in danger of being lost in the mists of time.
Fortunately, some of the mists were lifted a long time ago by the meticulous historian John Stow. His famous Survey of London referred to the remains of a large stone building in Little Wales, which was also known as Galley Row because of the considerable number of ships that used to unload there from the shores of the Thames, including galleys from Italy discharging cargoes of wine and other merchandise.
Stow didn’t believe local stories that it had been built by Julius Caesar, possibly as his London home. He thought it much more likely that it acquired the name because it had become the London abode of successive Princes of Wales, in much the same way that the ancient parcel of land called “Scotland” or Scotland Yard at the Charing Cross end of Whitehall was the London retreat of the Kings of Scotland. The heir to the throne in England has been given the title Prince of Wales since the early 14th century – most famously when Edward III bestowed it on his ill-fated son, Edward the Black Prince.
Why the Princes of Wales chose to live at the edge of the City walls – a long way from where they would have entered London from Wales – rather than near the Palace of Westminster as Scottish kings did is a moot point. Maybe they wanted to be in the City where the money was or just felt safer being so close to the Tower of London, where kings and queens often dwelled for short periods. Maybe they didn’t visit Wales that often anyway.
The prevalence of merchants and seamen in such a busy trading area inevitably led to the construction of stone houses for the gentry and taverns for the seamen. One such inn, Stow says, was run by a lady called Mother Mampudding. According to the Drinkingcup website, England’s earliest recorded spirits bar was the aptly named Aqua Vitae (“Water of Life”) House, established in 1572. This “drinking den”, it says, was located between two ale houses named the Ram’s Head and Mother Mampudding’s in Petty Wales. That may not be the reason the Princes of Wales came to live here, but it is another boost for the long forgotten history of this fascinating street.