Prehistory of Term "Tin Pan Alley"

victor steinbok aardvark66 at GMAIL.COM
Thu Jul 28 13:57:06 UTC 2011

I was curious to see if there are other pots-and-pans alleys. Even a quick
GB search did not disappoint. There appear to have been several "Frying Pan
alleys" in England, documented at least from 1728 to 1893. One is mentioned
by Burridge in The Review of London (1728 ), then again
by Tait in 1848, as a neighborhood in London that accommodates Jewish "old
clothes" vendors. The 1786 parliamentary papers include another for widening
and "cleansing" among the bills, with the location pinned as The Clink
district, Southwark, County of Surrey. That appears to be a cul-de-sac off
High Street. Southwark is again specifically mentioned in another report in
1861 ( ). The London street is revisited by several
authors throughout the second half of the 19th century without always
specifying the location, but one is mentioned as having been "swept away" by
1884. Still, it features prominently in Jack London's People of the Abyss
(1903). Throughout Fry-Pan Alley is listed as exceedingly narrow (2'3"),
filthy, poor, depressing and dangerous. One missionary publication lists it
as a prime "sample of abject poverty". There are at least two other sources
that suggest that this was a lower-class Jewish area (1810, 1878), although,
again, the precise location is not clear.

But 1810 Lockie's Topography of London and the 1831 "Topographic Dictionary"
identify five (!) streets named Frying-Pan-Alley.

> Frying-Pan-Alley, Turnmill-Street, Clerkenwell,--the second on the L. a few
> doors from Clerkenwellgreen towards Cow-cross.
> Frying-Pan-Alley, Petticoat-Lane, the first on the L. from Widegatest.
> Bishopsgate, or about six doors S. from Artillery-place, (Smockalley)
> extending to Bell-lane.
> Frying - Pan - Alley, Princes-Street, Lambeth,--the second on the R. about
> twelve doors from Broadst. towards Vauxhall, it extends to Fore-street.
> Frying-Pan-Alley, Maze, Borough,the third on the L. about ten doors from
> 195, Tooley-st. leading into King's-head-yard.
> Frying-Pan-Alley, High-Street, Borough--at 287, the third on the R.a few
> doors fromLondon-bridge, it leads to Green-dragon-yard.
FRYING-PAN-ALLEY 1. is in Turnmill-street, Clerkenwell, the second turning
on the left hand, from Clerkenwell-green. --2. is in Petticoat-lane, the
first turning on the left hand from Widegate-street, Bishopsgate. --3. is in
Prince's-street, Lambeth, the second turning on the right hand from
Broad-street towards Vauxhall. --4. is in the Maze, Borough, the third
turning on the left hand, about ten houses from Tooley-street --5. is in
High-street, Borough, the third turning on the right hand from
Journals of the House of Commons. From January the 24th, 1786, ..., to
December the 14th, 1786, ... . 1803
March 2, 1786. p. 272/1

> A petition of the Churchwardens, Overseers of the Poor, and several of the
> Inhabitants of the Parish of /Saint Saviour, Southwark/, in the County of
> /Surrey/, was presented to the House, and read ; Setting forth, That the
> said Parish is divided into Two Districts, one called /The Borough Liberty/,
> and the other /The Clink/, of Bishop of /Winchester/'s Liberty ; and that
> /The Borough Liberty/ was new paved, lighted, watched, cleansed, and cleared
> from Annoyances, under the Powers of an Acts passed in the Sixth Year of the
> Reign of His present Majesty, but the Streets, Lanes, Passages, and Places,
> within the last-mentioned Liberty, are in general ill-paved, and not
> sufficiently cleansed, lighted, or watched, and are also greatly annoyed by
> Nuisances and Obstructions, and the Passage called /Frying-Pan Alley/,
> leading from the /High Street/ of the Borough of /Southwark/ to the Parish
> Church of /Saint Saviour/, is very narrow and incommodious : And therefore
> praying, That Leave may be given to bring in a Bill for paving, cleansing,
> lighting, and watching the Streets, Lanes, and other public Passages and
> Places, within /The Clink/, or Bishop of /Winchester/'s Liberty, in the
> Parish of /Saint Saviour, Southwark/, in the County of /Surrey/, for Removal
> of present and Prevention of future Encroachments, Nuisances and Annoyances
> therein, and for widening the Alley, called /Frying-Pan Alley/, leading from
> the Borough of /Southwark/ to the Parish Church of /Saint Saviour/
> aforesaid, under such Regulations as to the House shall seem meet.

March 9, 1786. p. 312/1

> Mr. /George Gwilt/, a Surveyor, being then examined, confirmed the
> foregoing Evidence of Mr. /Levy/; and added, That a certain Alley or Passage
> called /Frying Pan Alley/, leading from the /High Street/ of the said
> Borough of /Southwark/ to the Parish Church of /Saint Saviour/, is very
> narrow and incommodious.
> Mr. /Levy/ being again examined, said, It would be a great Advantage and
> Accommodation to the Inhabitants of the said /Clink Liberty/ to have the
> Streets, Lanes, Passages, and Places, therein properly paved, cleansed,
> lighted, watched, and regulated, and the said Passage called /Frying Pan
> Alley/, made of sufficient Width throughout, but that the same cannot be
> done without the Aid of Parliament.
> /Ordered/, ...

[The bill is read, reviewed and sent to committees several times until it is
finally "carried to the Lords" on June 13, 1786.]
Tait's Edinburgh Magazine. Volume 15:153. December 1848
London Lanes and Village Association. p. 848/1

> Orders against obstruction on the pavement are inoperative in the
> thoroughly Jewish and Irish quarters of large cities. In London the old
> clothes trade is supposed to be chiefly in the hands of the lower classes of
> Jewish traders. In Edinburgh and Glasgow the Irish have the best part of the
> business. The neighbourhood of Frying-pan Alley is literally covered with
> old clothes. They hang inside and outside of the shops and houses in
> batches. Their exposure in that way might be tolerable, but they are placed
> in heaps on the pavements of the narrow lanes, and in the lanes themselves,
> so that passengers require some skill and patience to avoid tumbling into,
> or over, the stock of a dealer--who will be found generally squatted on the
> ground beside his assortment. A heavy shower clears away these collections
> of threadbare coats, discarded vests, and shocking bad hats; but people
> cannot always command rain when it is desirable, and a perpetual deluge
> would be requisite to keep the way to "Frying-pan Alley" open. The alley
> itself is not so remarkable as its approaches. The houses are neither so
> high nor close as in many parts of Edinburgh. Filth is not so obtrusive as
> in dozens of wynds in Glasgow. The sewerage is evidently defective. The
> means of cleanliness that should exist in connection with every
> dwelling-house are apparently wanting. The air is certainly obnoxious in
> summer afternoons; but the tenants of the lowest flats keep their windows
> open, and so we presume that it must be of better quality without than
> within. The condition of the inhabitants is evidently miserable; but we
> believe respecting them, as respecting many others in similar circumstances,
> that their dwellings injure their morality, and their immorality makes their
> houses worse than they might appear.
Appletons Journal. Volume 12. New York: November 7, 1874
The Prisons of London. IV. Female Convicts. p. 584/3

> What a deal much - vaunted local self-government has to answer for in
> London! How eagerly the addle - headed, obstinate tradesmen, who for the
> most part form the London vestry-boards, seem to seize upon every possible
> available opportunity for showing "how not to do it!" Close upon this same
> court we have just been referring to, which, by-the-way, goes by the savory
> name of "Frying-Pan Alley," a man died of typhoid fever. The wife of the
> poor fellow was so wretchedly poor herself that she had no means of
> providing him a coffin, let alone i hearse for the burial.
The Argosy. Volume 19. London: January 1875
A Welsh Ramble. By C. W. W. [The author of "A Night in a Monastery".] p. 52

> But yesterday I passed through a terrible bit of London, terrible as a
> plague-spot. One of its most favoured courts rejoices in the name of Frying
> Pan Alley. You turn up Frying Pan Alley, which is a cul-de- sac, and not
> only can touch the walls on either side with your hands, but almost with
> your shoulders. The place is indescribably dreadful and filthy. During
> daylight it appears to be thickly people with women and babies--especially
> the latter.
Margaret Mervyn's Cross. By Emma Raymond Pitman. London: 1878
pp. 223-4

> As I said before, Peggy's residence was not far from Marjory Tibbs's,
> being a few stone's-throws from Rutley's Court, and in the delightful
> locality of Frying-pan Alley. Of course, in London, as in the country,
> "birds of a feather flock together," and Peggy's neighbours were composed of
> the very lowest orders of working-class life. Cats'-meat men,
> watercress-sellers, costermongers, travelling Punch-and-Judy people,
> crossing-sweepers, shoeblacks, ballad-hawkers, ratcatchers, chair and
> umbrella menders, and such like, inhabited Frying-pan Alley. The
> Dimsdales' home consisted of two small rooms, the largest one "parlour,
> kitchen, and all" ; the other did duty as general sleeping apartment for the
> whole family. But, though the accommodation was most limited, yet it was
> munificent in comparison with some other homes of the same class, where a
> single apartment was all the space occupied, both by night and day; and not
> unfrequently the number included a lodger or two beside the family proper.
> But Peggy's father and mother were industrious, careful people--clean and
> economical too, for their station in life; and if to some people they might
> have seemed otherwise, let me remind them that it is very difficult indeed
> to practise the minor moralities of life in such districts and among such
> surroundings as those of Frying-pan Alley.
Frying-Pan Alley. By Theresa Cornwallis J. West. London: 1880
London in the Reign of Victoria (1837-1897). By George Laurence Gomme.
London: 1898
Appendix I. p. 219

>  The Earl of Shaftesbury gave to the Royal Commissioners on the Housing- of
> the Working Classes, in 1884, some striking testimony as to the bad sanitary
> conditions amid which the poor in some quarters of the town were compelled
> to live in the earlier days of his labours among them. The following are a
> few extracts from the official report of his evidence:--
> ...

"There was the famous Frying-pan Alley, near Holborn, now swept away. I
> inspected the whole of Frying-pan Alley, and I am happy to say that such a
> thing does not exist now in London, and could not exist, because the
> attention of the officer of health and others would be called to it, and it
> would be abolished. Frying-pan Alley was a very famous alley in Holborn,
> like one of those I have described to you; it was very narrow, the only
> necessary accommodation being at the end; in the first house that I turned
> into there was a single room, the window was very small, and the light came
> through the door. I saw a young woman there, and I asked her if she had been
> there some little time. 'Yes,' she said, 'her husband went out to work, and
> was obliged to come there to be near his work.' She said, 'I am miserable 1'
> 'What is it?'I asked. 'Look there,' said she,'at that great hole; the
> landlord will not mend it. I have every night to sit up and watch, or my
> husband sits up to watch, because that hole is over a common sewer, and the
> rats come up, sometimes twenty at a time, and if we did not watch them they
> would eat the baby up.' I am giving you that as a typical instance of what
> went on in London at that time. That could not exist now." (Q. 36.)

I can't speculate as to the origin of the name. It could have been an
attempt at self-deprecation by original residents. It might have been named
for its shape--a narrow cul-de-sac, resembling a frying pan handle. One
thing it does /not/ appear to be named for is the clanging of frying pans.

Given the timeline, what is the possibility that "tin-pan-alley" was an
American variant on the London original Frying Pan Alley? The living
conditions, at least, appear to be similar.


On Thu, Jul 28, 2011 at 7:29 AM, Shapiro, Fred <fred.shapiro at>wrote:

> Barry Popik has antedated the OED's first use of "Tin Pan Alley" (the
> district of New York housing many song writers and song publishers) by five
> years, back to 1903.  In  searching America's Historical Newspapers, I find
> that "Tin Pan Alley" was used to refer to a raucous street in New Haven,
> with no musical connotation, in five articles in the New Haven Evening
> Register in 1890 (also in an 1892 article and an 1894 article in the same
> newspaper).  The earliest citation is as follows:
> 1890 _New Haven Evening Register_ 8 Aug. 4 (America's Historical
> Newspapers)  There was a rumpus among a number of women in Tin Pan alley on
> Wednesday and the result was that Mrs. Eleanor Church and Mrs. Mamie Arthur
> were before the city court this morning charged with a breach of the peace
> on each other.  Tin Pan alley branches off from Wallace Street and is, so a
> witness told Judge Pickett this morning, the worst place in town.
> I hypothesize that "Tin Pan Alley" was used originally to refer to any
> noisy street (from the sound of beating a tin pan) and the usage eventually
> morphed into a specific reference to the noisy piano-clanging district of
> New York.
> Fred Shapiro
> Editor
> YALE BOOK OF QUOTATIONS (Yale University Press)

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