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Kent Street ejectment Bags packed? Passport ready? Good, because we’ll be making no fewer than eighty stops on this etymological trip around the world. And following the route of another literary circumnavigation, we’re beginning this journey in London.
But while Phileas Fogg’s eighty-day voyage began in the lavish surroundings of the Reform Club, we’re starting off in – well, a less grandiose setting. A poverty-stricken street in eighteenth-century Southwark, to be exact.
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Places all across London have provided inspiration for countless words and phrases over the centuries, from an Aldgate draught, a punning name for a bad cheque (so called as Aldgate was once home to a well-used water pump) to a Westminster wedding, an eighteenth-century term for what one contemporary dictionary defined as ‘a whore and a rogue married together’. An interesting take on the Abbey’s popularity as a high-society wedding venue.
Because inmates at London’s Newgate prison were typically coupled together in pairs, to walk Newgate fashion is to walk hand in hand, while a Newgate nightingale was once a witty nickname for a jailbird in seventeenth-century slang. If you’ve ever been in financial difficulty then you’ve been on Carey Street, the Holborn address of the Bankruptcy Department of London’s Supreme Court (which now lies, somewhat ironically, beside the London School of Economics).
And if you’ve ever just missed the Tube or found yourself stuck in an endless London traffic jam, then you may have had cause to use Billingsgate, a seventeenth-century word for coarse language namechecking the notoriously vulgar-tongued vendors of London’s fish market.
On the opposite side of the River Thames from all these was Kent Street. You won’t find its name on any maps of London today, but you will at least find it in the dictionary under the heading of a Kent Street ejectment.
Kent Street was one of London’s most ancient thoroughfares, thought to have developed from a Roman road that once connected the city to Greenwich, Canterbury and Dover. Originally, little more than fields and open ground lay either side of it, but as London thrived this empty greenbelt was gradually eaten up by a sprawling network of houses and hostels, inns and taverns, and one of the city’s largest leprosy hospitals.
As a main road in and out of the city, by 1565 Kent Street had grown in significance enough to warrant the passing of an Act of Parliament ordering that it be paved. This sparked a further boom in housebuilding and development, but unfortunately for Kent Street, these dwellings were far from the most luxurious homes in the capital, and their tenants were far from the most affluent.
Soon, the entire Kent Street area had become synonymous with the very worst of London’s squalor and destitution, and those who ventured into it were quick to ensure they didn’t repeat the journey. In his Survey of London (1720), the English historian John Strype described Kent Street as ‘very long but ill-built’, and ‘chiefly inhabited by broom-men and mumpers’ (or street-sweepers and beggars, as we’d know them today). In his Travels Through France and Italy (1766), the Scottish writer Tobias Smollett labelled Kent Street ‘a most disgraceful entrance to such an opulent city’, that gave anyone unfamiliar with the capital ‘such an idea of misery and meanness all the wealth and magnificence of London and Westminster are afterwards unable to destroy’.
Another equally evocative account from the late 1800s lamented Kent Street’s ‘evil reputation’, and described a street where it was not uncommon to find ‘men, women, children, asses, pigs, and dogs living together in the same room’. Even Charles Dickens thought it ‘the worst kept part of London’ (second only to Haymarket, in his opinion), while one nineteenth-century dictionary spelled it out even more clearly: in a description of precisely what constitutes living the ‘high’ and ‘low’ life in London in the early 1800s, the lexicographer John Badcock had this to say: White Cross Street, of a Saturday night, is low; and so is Petticoat Lane of a Sunday morning; and Kent Street, all day. —John Badcock, Slang: A Dictionary of the Turf (1823) All day every day, there was seemingly no escaping how ‘low’ life was on Kent Street. Its inhabitants were among the city’s poorest, their homes among its most miserable, and their landlords among its least sympathetic. No matter the meagre circumstances, there was still rent to be collected on Kent Street, and woe betide anyone who fell into arrears. With no property worth seizing to cover the debt, insolvent tenants on Kent Street would often find themselves being swiftly and unceremoniously evicted via an uncompromising method that became known as the Kent Street ejectment. Kent Street ejectment. To take away the street door [of a house]: a method practised by the landlords in Kent Street, Southwark, when their tenants are above a fortnight’s rent in arrear. Francis Grose, A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (1785) That definition is the earliest record we have of a Kent Street ejectment, suggesting that the practice first emerged among the stoniest of the stony-hearted landlords of mid-eighteenth-century London. Use of the term (and, we can presume, the practice) steadily dwindled throughout the 1800s, and the expression has long since gathered dust in one of the more neglected corners of the dictionary; it’s remained little more than a historical and linguistic curio since the turn of the twentieth century. Kent Street itself, meanwhile, has long since changed: renamed Tabard Street in 1877, after redevelopment and renovation in the early 1900s it’s now a perfectly respectable neighbourhood standing in the shadow of The Shard, one of modern London’s most impressive landmarks, and no longer one of the city’s main arterial routes.