Sunday, 18 September 2011

Origins of Street Names

An almost endless subject and one which is a particular favourite of mine. Toponomy, the study of place names, will give the ancient history of the place and its location. However studying street names will enable us to see something of the people, hence each town and city pays tribute to those who have contributed to its development. Soon after the Industrial Revolution this will have been the entrepreneurs and investors who built the factories and the houses for those who worked there, quite rightly putting their own names (and those of their family) on the road sign at the end of the street. In later years the councillors and mayors were similarly honoured. Thus many names are unique to the town and its people but there are also a selection of street names which are found in most sizable towns and cities and it is those we shall be examining.

High Street - although it often does rise above the surrounding area this is only because there was a natural tendency to settle on drier ground and thus avoiding seasonal flooding. Yet the name speaks of 'high' in the sense of 'important'.

Back Street and Fore Street refer to the 'rear entrance' and the 'front door' of the town respectively. Not that there is such a thing, in reality it refers to the less common route and the most common entrance point. Ironically there ar many more examples of Back Street than Fore Street.

Broad Street should always be seen as bening named comparatively. In days when streets were not built to take traffic those that were laid out to allow the flow of carts and waggons would have been noticeably broader than the alleys where the upper floors overhang, appearing almost to touch.

Albion Street - no surprise to find this in towns all over the land, it is the poetic name for Britain and held to be a reference to the white cliffs of the southeast coastline.

Pinfold Street - named after the area set aside to hold stray livestock until their owners collected them and paid the required fine. The monies went to the upkeep of the community and paid the wages of the pinner, he responsible for the pinfold and whose job title became a surname.

Conduit Street - is always an indication of a water channel, maybe covered over. However more often this would have been a sewer, not a supply of fresh water.

Friday Street - has two possible meanings. Either this refers to poverty, Friday being the least popular day of the week in medieval Europe, or it describes the place where fish was sold, this being the only meat permitted to be served by the pious on Fridays.

Cheapside - is derived from the Old English word ceap meaning 'a deal' and used to point to this being a market place.

Rotten Row - clearly a derogatory name but the exact sense is disputed, indeed it seems likely to have a number of uses depending upon the location.

Salters Street - an ancient route, probably one of the earliest into the place, and that taken by those who brought that precious commodity of salt. Even the most efficient of settlements would rarely have a reliable supply of salt locally, hence they were reliant on the salt routes. Not that salt was used as a seasoning as today, it was far too precious. Salt provided a way to preserve meat before the refrigerator and also used in the production of cheese.

The Butts - a name which I try to avoid discussing when giving talks on the subject of place names, for it often disappoints the enthusiastic amateur historians present. I am well aware the audience hope to hear this refers to archery butts, that which supports the target during practise. Less romantic is the image of the game of butts, once popular in the north of the land it was similar to tip-cat (a variety of rules exist but is basically a little stick being whacked with a bigger stick as far as possible). What they really do not like to hear is the most common origin, where the butts referred to that unploughed strip around the edge of the field which remained unploughed for this was where the plough team turned.

Should you have a local road, street or lane you would like to know the meaning of drop me a line and I will try my best to offer a solution.


  1. Treacle Bolly - an old pathway around the back of Marlborough College. Various local ideas, including a connection with college puddings.

    We also have Coldharbour Lane (not far from the site of an old monastery, and very inland), and Blowhorn Street.

  2. Hello JO,
    Of the three names I have three answers: one certain, one maybe and a dunno!
    Coldharbour Lane is the easy one, the 'harbour' refers to a sheltered spot in an otherwise cold or 'exposed' position. This name will almost certainly have been taken from an earlier map when the lane was first developed.
    Blowhorn Street runs parallel to the above and it is safe to assume the exposed position of Coldharbour is repeated for this name. The 'horn' would probably be a 'horn of land' a reference to the shape which may be formed by the topography or boundaries (artificial and/or man-made).
    Treacle Bolly is a delightful name and one I'm sorry to say I haven't a clue. Would be interested in hearing the other local ideas though.

  3. Thanks, Anthony.

    Treacle Bolly - have found another 'tale' - believed to have been the name by which the miller addressed his barrel-shaped pony - so, 'Get up there, old treacle belly.'

    But who knows?

  4. Our High Street is located next to a canal. Yep, it gets flooded. Not such good planning. :)

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