Sunday, 28 July 2013

Origins of the Most Common of Street Names

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.

Sunday, 21 July 2013


I did not have a job when I left school - it was the early seventies and the last days of Edward Heath's government and unemployment was the height of fashion. What I did have was a Saturday job in a hardware shop which, for a couple of months full time, gave me a meagre income and very tired feet.

At the time I had no idea ‘hardware’ was also used as a slang term for ammunition during the days when Birmingham’s Gun Quarter and munitions factories were employed as many in cottage industries as the city’s more famous Jewellery Quarter did at its height. The most famous of the ‘hardware’ manufacturers was BSA, a name now synonymous with motorcycles but one which began as Birmingham Small Arms and abbreviated to BSA. The military relied so heavily on supplies from Birmingham that those from the Second City became known as Hardware-Blokes. This was then transferred to those who sold metal items door-to-door, with their wares known as Hardware-Swag.

The ‘hardware’ term was only in use for about 50 years from 1870. Before, during and afterwards the residents of Birmingham were more commonly known as Brummies. This came from Brummagen, a local name which developed from the idea of the city’s name being ‘Bromwich-ham’ and influenced by neighbouring settlements such as Castle Bromwich and West Bromwich and the development of the terms Brummie and Brum are obvious.

Around the same time the term Brummagem came into use with a very different meaning. Look in the Oxford English Dictionary under ‘Brummagem’ and see the definition ‘counterfeit, cheap and showy’. This comes from a time when the Jewellery Quarter was found to have a number of unscrupulous characters who were watering down the gold with cheaper metals. The reason gold is so valuable is threefold: it is comparatively rare, does not tarnish, and is extremely malleable making it easy to make into the intricate jewellery designs. As the percentage of gold in the product drops so the finished product increases in size and gaudiness.

While neither slang term is in use for metal-working, I know of no other example where a slang place name has entered the dictionary with a completely different meaning at the same time as a word in the dictionary has come to be a slang term for a person from the same place.

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.

Sunday, 14 July 2013

Fanny Adams

An expression known to all meaning ‘nothing’ – and often said to be ‘Sweet Fanny Adams’. Yet it is also a term having a most interesting etymology, albeit a sad and macabre one.

In 1867 three girls from Alton in Hampshire took a walk. Fanny Adams, aged 8, her 7-year-old sister Lizzie, and their 8-year-old friend Minnie Warner were given permission to head towards Flood Meadow by Harriet Adams, mother of the sisters. Around two in the afternoon on Tanhouse Lane they met Frederick Baker, a 29-year-old solicitor’s clerk. The man offered four halfpennies to the girls, one for each and an extra one for Fanny to accompany him to Shalden some two miles away. They all took the coins but Fanny refused to go with him. It made no difference. Baker carried Fanny Adams into a field of hops. She was never seen alive again.

It was three hours before the other girls returned home. In their naivety they saw no reason to raise an alarm and it was only when a neighbour, a Mrs Gardiner, asked about Fanny that their story came out and Mrs Adams was informed. Both women retraced the girls’ steps and soon met Baker. They spoke to him and while he admitted he had given them money he denied anything else had happened. In Victorian Britain a man in his position was considered completely trustworthy and his version was accepted.

Another two hours and still no sign of Fanny and every available hand went searching. They soon found what they were looking for in the hop field. What they found was horrific for the body had been horribly mutilated. Arms and legs were severed, the eye sockets were empty, and the torso was empty. Her eyes later found in the river, with the internal organs strewn across the countryside. Over a matter of days the remains were recovered and taken to the local doctor’s surgery where they were reunited.

Later that evening Baker was arrested at the office of his employer, William Clement. Police had to protect him from the mob who, on seeing the blood on his clothes, were increasingly aggressive. There was so much evidence against him – two blood-stained knives on his person, a witness to Baker leaving Alton and a new career “as a butcher”, the statements of the Lizzie and Minnie, and a diary entry in Baker’s own hand “24th August, Saturday – killed a young girl. It was fine and hot.”

Sent for trial at Winchester it was revealed Baker had murdered her by a blow to the head with a sizable stone. His counsel tried to show he was insane, there being several cases of such in the family, they also tried to show diminished responsibility with medical evidence of epilepsy. There was no question as to his eventual guilt, the only question whether the police could protect him long enough for him to die at the hands of the executioner. On Christmas Eve 1867 Baker was hanged outside Winchester Gaol, the last person executed in the city.

Today we see the origin of the phrase as insensitive, to say the least. However it took just two years for this notorious case to enter the language, for it was then the Royal Navy introduced tinned mutton to their rations. Sailors did not care for the new protein source and suggested it must be produced from the remains of the murder victim. It has been speculated the two stories were linked by the local of the Royal Navy yard at Deptford, where there was an abattoir and a bakery and within touching distance of Alton. In reality the two were several miles apart and this explanation was almost certainly created several years afterwards. The same is also true of the abbreviation “Sweet FA” used for “sweet f**k all” when certainly from much later. The tin containing the meat was later reused as a mess tin. Recycling nineteenth century style led to the mess tin being known as a Fanny as it still is today

Shortly after the use of Fanny Adams to refer to something as ‘worthless’ or ‘nothing at all’ the Australians began referring to canned chopped meat as Harriet Lane. Despite this also being the name of Fanny’s mother, the two are unrelated except by the circumstances of their respective murders. As with Fanny, Harriet Lane (for that was her name) was murdered and butchered, the latter by a man named Henry Wainwright. However this was not in Australia, as we would presume, but in London.

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.

Sunday, 7 July 2013

A Writer's Distractions

Writing takes up a great deal of my time. Indeed when I’m not writing it seems I’m invariably researching, taking photographs, or driving between one place and another. Now we have longer days, note I refrain from referring to the British weather as ‘summer’ (despite the current warm spell), I aim to take one day out every week to walk. Many of the walks are along canal tow paths, or circular routes around open country, and the occasional circuit which takes in an old railway line, including those featured in my book Beeching 50 Years On.

In recent months the tow paths of Britain have provided me with an all-weather surface. One of the plus points in walking canals is how often their routes closely follow the railway lines. The reason is obvious, both forms of transport follow a predominantly level route between two places, which will inevitably be similar. One journey I recently completed was along the Birmingham and Worcester Canal, a route which can be found here with additional information on the Droitwich Canal. I walked both, albeit in two stages, first from Birmingham to Alvechurch and second from Alvechurch to Worcester along with a loop around to Droitwich. Anyone thinking of following this route should certainly start in Birmingham as there is a drop of some 220 feet over the 30 locks of the Tardebigge Flight, the longest flight of locks anywhere in the land.

The two stages of the Worcester Canal are very different. Firstly the leg to Alvechurch, which is as level as it can possibly be for there is not a lock on this stretch. However one warning, there is a tunnel beneath Wast Hills. At almost two miles in length and without a tow path, the walker has no choice but to detour over the top. This route should be worked out beforehand as there is no marked way to follow.

Below Alvechurch, where the canal and railway station are separated by less than a hundred yards, there is a second tunnel to negotiate. This is much shorter and the detour well signposted, unlike the third tunnel on the outskirts of Droitwich which again should be planned beforehand. However the most obvious feature is the Tardebigge Flight. The amount of water needed to feed this drop is colossal. If you have any doubt as to the size of this feature simply pause to take a look at the size of Tardebigge Reservoir, built solely to feed the flight. It is impossible to envisage this engineering feat when walking it, the only really good view is from the air which ironically could not have been seen until around a hundred years after it was first in use.

For me walking is a way to rid the mind of clutter. It is when I’m thinking of nothing that I have the best ideas when it comes to my writing, very little of which has anything to do with walking, canals, or even railways. This is particularly true when walking along canals as it requires very little concentration, not even having to follow or work out a route on a map. Not that I particularly enjoy walking canals from a physical viewpoint as, for the most part, they are flat and thus using the same muscles for mile after mile. Something we notice when it comes time to turn off!

One day soon I intend to hire a canal boat and navigate the canals during the day, leaving the writing for the evening. Perhaps it will inspire different words to appear on the paper. Always assuming I can keep myself away from the many pubs, serving not only a hearty meal but a most tempting array of real ales.

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.