Some months ago, perhaps even years, I wrote on the subject of the origin of street names. A reader commented on how useful this would prove to writers of historical fiction. Since then research has revealed more examples of names which have changed little over the years and I thought it time to share. Should anyone find these useful in their work I would be delighted to hear from you.
Hardly any town or city does not have a High Street. This has nothing to do with elevation but refers to its importance. Villages tend to use Main Street instead, which is much more obvious.
We also find settlements with Fore Street and Back Street, again simple enough names easily seen as the front and rear routes into, or out of, the settlement. It would be difficult to identify a ‘front’ or ‘back’ to a town or village, hence should be seen as the main route and less popular ways in or out. Another point worth noting is how there are many more examples of Back Street than Fore Street.
Broad Street often seems to be a misnomer today, rarely is it even as wide as more modern roads. However when it was named the reverse was the case.
In Pinfold Street is a reminder of the ‘pinfold’, a pen where the pinner held stray livestock until collected by their rightful owner. Monies collected in fines paid on collection paid the pinner a wage.
Conduit Street pointed to a water channel, likely one which existed before the street. Sometimes this brought fresh water into the community but more often was used as a sewer.
Holloway, sometimes seen as Holloway Street or Holloway Road, literally speaks of itself as ‘the hollow way’. Examine the route and it can be seen to cut into the surrounding topography and this is exactly what it means. Here is a route which has been used by so many for so long it has literally been worn away by countless feet, hooves and cartwheels.
While markets and trades are often obvious in examples such as Baker Street, Market Row, etc., some are less obvious. Cheapside or Cheap Street comes from ceap a term meaning ‘a market’, while Friday Street was named for this was where fish was sold on, at the very least, that particular day of the week; and Salters Lane shows where this important commodity was sold, stored, produced or transported.
Rotten Row is clearly derogatory but the sense differs in each case. Some describe this as a slum, a lair for criminals, the haunt of prostitutes and other qualities seen as less than desirable. We should also consider it may have been named ironically, for many examples of such have survived in minor place names and a nickname which has stuck through usage.
A rather different idea is conveyed in Honey Road or Honeypot Road but the message is not what it seems. This is not the land of milk and honey, or even the road leading there, but a way which will churn up into a sticky morass in all but the driest conditions. The same muddy surface was referred to in names such as Silent Lane or Featherbed Lane, for this would deaden the noise of the hoof or wheel as it travelled along.
The Victorians were fond of changing names they considered ‘unsuitable’ and hence a once-common name of identical meaning is no longer found. Not that the Victorians objected to anything known for its muddiness, just objected to the early word ‘shitten’. Note this originally referred to the texture of mud before it was used in the context with which we are familiar today.
Whilst on the subject of the Victorians, they found one street name particularly objectionable. Two versions of a name existed, each describing ‘a narrow and dark passage’ which meant those might have to feel their way along and thus we find Grope Alley. I did say two versions and the second added a four letter word to ‘grope’, a word still considered the least acceptable, and thought to refer to the haunt of prostitutes. However all those four letters describes was what was seen – a narrow and unlit passage. Dens of iniquity were given names such as Love Lane, Maiden Street, and Finkle Street, the Middle English finkel used to mean ‘pet, cuddle’.
While streets named after the cardinal compass points are obvious, these are sometimes still used is names such as Northgate Street and Eastgate Street, etc. It is clear these were the streets to (or from) the town gates, however the Old English gaet merits examination for usage has changed here, too. To the Saxons a gaet was the ‘way to’, most often used where a route narrowed and thus naturally transferred to the panel placed across the way to make it less easy to pass. Eventually hinges and a locking mechanism produced the ‘gate’ we would know today.
One of the most common is a pet hate of mine, not because of the origins but because it invariably clashes with the accepted local definition whenever I happen to speaking on the subject. Almost without exception local historians will enthusiastically claim it marks where archery was practiced by the local men. This enabled the men, as ordered by the king, to have an excuse not to attend church – at the time a crime requiring payment of a fine greater than most could ever afford. Now while there must be some instances where the archery butts gave the name, they can probably be counted on little more than the fingers of both hands. Indeed there are likely more from the game of butts, what seems to me a rather pointless sport where a little stick is tapped at one end so as to pop up and be whacked a second time with the larger stick. The winner is the one whose smaller stick travels the greatest distance. I’m informed this is similar to something called tip-cat but I am familiar with neither. Yet the vast majority of Butts Lane, The Butts, and other variations come from the term used in Saxon times to refer to the strip of land which remained untouched by the plough at the sides of the field, for this was where the plough team turned.
If anyone has any specific road names to define or, for the novelist, a street name created to fit a particular era or situation don’t hesitate to contact me.
As usual I would welcome any suggestions for themes or subjects, or even specific words to examine the origins, meanings and etymologies. I’d be delighted to hear from you.