The Mall in Central London is the long straight road that leads from Trafalgar Square, through Admiralty Arch and down to Buckingham Palace. To the south side, we have St James’s Park and to the north, rather grand-looking buildings which includes other palaces, government conference centres and an art gallery to mention but a few. If we travel one road north of The Mall, we find a shorter parallel road of more grand buildings including the Institute of Directors and the RAC Club. This road is called Pall Mall.
But where does the word Mall originate?
Indeed, it also covers a much more modern set of structures – the shopping mall or as the Americans might say, the Mall. Surprisingly, the term refers to an Italian game which no longer exists. It was known as “Pallo a Maglio.” But when it arrived in Britain, it became known as Pall Mall. Both Charles I and James I were enthusiasts. But you needed to have a lot of land to play it. The course required half a mile of playing area. So, how was it played?
The nearest we can get was that it was in some ways similar to hockey. A ball was hit with sticks along the course. The new buildings along the Mall destroyed the first course but a new one was designed to be built just north. This is of course in Pall Mall. Quite simple when you know why a road gets its name.
Okay, so that leaves one question. How did the name become a term for a shopping centre? Basically, the reason was that when the king played the game in Pall Mall, crowds would turn up to watch. These did not just include the well-off and powerful. Because the course was within the Court of St James, it was an area where those of lesser stations in life could come even if they owed debts. This meant that they were safe from the clutches of the authorities whilst there.
So, the whole experience became a bit of a promenade with people walking about and socialising. This led to the arrival of shops to further entertain the crowds. And over time, the shopping mall arose. But perhaps there’s one question I haven’t answered? Was the law that debtors could not be arrested if they remained in the area of the Court of St James, still in force? As far as I can tell, it is. However, I wouldn’t take the chance of borrowing money and staying in St James for the rest of your life!