During the Regency Era one of the places to see and be seen was a broad stretch of track running along the south side of Hyde Park in London. It was known as Rotten Row, not a very enticing name for a place where the beau monde would congregate. Some say the name Rotten Row is believed to be a corruption of La Route du Roi, or King’s Road, which was its original name. Another likely possibility as to the name comes from the materials of the road made of a mix of gravel and crushed tree bark to create a firm, yet pliable surface. Some definitions of “rotten” are”friable,” “soft” or “yielding” which describes the surface ideal for horses’ feet and legs. Think of the tracks which runners use, firm yet slightly springy–perfect for running without causing undue strain on athletes’ bones, muscles, and tendons.
The Book of London Place Names by Caroline Taggart says the name is actually more likely due to the soil used as footing (not to a corruption of royal). “As for the name of the ‘row’ or avenue, the commonly held view that it derived from the French route du roi, ‘road of the king’, seems unlike to be true. After all, William III [on the throne at the time] was Dutch and spent much of his reign at war with France: French was not the fashionable language at the time. More probable is that ‘rotten’ was simply a colloquial description of the row’s sandy, gravelly soil — the OED [Oxford English Dictionary] gives this definition, current at the period: ‘of ground, soil, etc.: lacking structure or cohesion; excessively soft. loose, or boggy’.”
Kathryn Kane at the Regency Redingote says the name Rotten Row dates to about 1780.. However, it became public in 1730, so it might have been called that before 1780. [The Regency Redingote site is excellent for a more detailed history of how the road names changed and how the Rotten Row came into existence.]
The site Friends of Rotten Row (who support Southport, near Liverpool, not the London route) tell us, “The name ‘Rotten Row’ is traceable to the mid-nineteenth century. It certainly derives its unusual name from the Rotten Row in Hyde Park, London, which is a broad straight road or walkway along the southern edge of the park, originally used for horse-riding and laid out at the end of the seventeenth century. There are several alternative theories about the name ‘Rotten Row’ (of which there are over fifteen examples in England):
a) a place where there was once a row of tumbledown cottages infested with rats (raton), and of medieval derivation
b) a corruption of rotteran (to muster), and therefore a place where the militia paraded
c) Ratten Row meaning ‘roundabout way’
d) Route du roi (thus, the king’s or royal road)
e) rotten because of the soft material with which the road was covered”
The track, which is 1,384 metres in length leads from Hyde Park Corner to Serpentine Road. During the late Georgian Period, Rotten Row was a fashionable place for the ton, England’s upper class, to be seen horseback riding. Even today, Londoners can ride their horses along the stretch.
Rotten Row came into existence at the end of the 17th Century, under the reign of William III. It was designed to provide a faster and safer means to travel between St James Palace and Kensington Palace. It was wide enough for three carriages to pass each other easily, and it was the first highway to be artificially lit in Britain. Some 300 oil lamps were used to ward off highwaymen and to make the pathway more appealing.
In the 18th and the 19th Century, it was not uncommon to find the aristocracy/gentry enjoying a picnic along the pathway. Wikipedia tells us that the adjacent South Carriage Drive was used by society people in carriages to be seen. This was especially helpful to those who did not ride.
The information site goes on to say, “A Royal plaque commemorating 300 years of Rotten Row was erected in 1990.
“ROTTEN ROW – The King’s Old Road, Completed 1690
This ride originally formed part of King William III’s carriage drive from Whitehall to Kensington Palace. Its Construction was supervised by the Serveyor of their Majesties’ Roads, Captain Michael Studholme and it was the first lamp-lit road in the Kingdom. Designated as a public bridleway in the 1730’s, Rotten Row is one of the most famous urban riding grounds in the world.”