A Note on Street Names

by Peter Hickman and Frank Sharman

The names of our streets can often help to trace the former history of our towns and villages.  However this is not by any means a static situation for a multitude of reasons. Who for example would like to give Pigsty Lane as their address? Perhaps when this became the more appropriate Cemetery Lane, the inhabitants were not exactly enamoured. So it changed again to Bismark Road which, by 1914, was equally undesirable.  Today Jeffcock Road is a far more acceptable name.  

The second part of the name is very significant also since it indicates the kind of thoroughfare and its situation. The word Street comes from the A/S “stroet”. This means a paved way within a town or village. Road is “ridan” what we would today recognise as a bridle path suitable for carts and riders as well as walkers. Lane denotes that the way is narrow and winding, usually between hedges or stone walls; the old word was “Lan”. The Anglo Saxon “weg” is a general word for any Way, or a passage of some distance. Today we have Close used many times in new estates. This too has ancient origins coming from Middle English “closen”, an enclosure of land. Similarly Drive, usually the way to a group of private dwellings, meant just the same when the word “drifan” indicated the private passage down which a farmer drove his animals from the field to his farm yard.

In some parts of the country you find names specific to that part.  For example in eastern England roads may be called "gate", from the old Danish word for a road (and not anything to do with an entrance).  In Wolverhampton we have a name for a street which may not be unique but is certainly rare:  fold.  There can be little real doubt that some of the streets and alleys called "fold" once were, or lead to, places where sheep were folded before or after going through the market.  But we have to be careful.  Some streets now called "fold" appear on older maps without the word "fold" appended to the name.  This suggests that some folds may have been named that way, not because of some connection with the trade in sheep, but because people thought it a good name for a road.

In earlier times street names just happened.  A street acquired a name from the general usage of the inhabitants when they were talking about a street to each other.  So "Penn Road" was the road you went along to get to Penn and "Worcester Street" was the road that lead towards Worcester.  The main road in any town was often called High Street and  that way this country has ended up with innumerable "High Street"s.  But there might be more than one way of describing a street and streets could end up with alternative names.

In Victorian times local councils were called upon to put up street names and when they did so this tended to fix the name of the street.  Councils often took the opportunity of changing the name of a street if they objected to its old name for any reason.

The practice was that when a new road was built whoever developed it gave it a name - so Darlington Street was named after the Duke who sold the land it was on and who it might be as well to flatter a bit.  The situation is much the same today in that whoever builds a new road can think up a name for it.  This is subject to the approval of the local authority, who consult the Royal Mail, the Police and Fire Services in an attempt to avoid names which might cause confusion or be objected to in almost any other way.  They also do not approve street names which seem to amount to advertising, for example, of the development company.  Curiously enough many developers do not suggest street names and the city council (through its designated officer) has to think of a name.  The officer usually tries to find a name with some historical association in the immediate vicinity.  

When deliberate decisions were taken to give names to roads, a certain snobbery crept in.  "Road" indicated a better class of housing than "street".  So when the Graiseley Estate was sold off for housing, the roads between Penn Road and Lea Road were called "Copthorne Road", "Oaklands Road" and so on;  but the smaller houses on the other side of Lea Road were in "Streets".  Then estate developers chose their names to give them some appeal to purchasers, and "Avenue" became popular, whether there were trees along both sides or not.  And, as it turns out, "Laburnam" became the country's most popular name for roads, avenues, closes, crescents and so forth.  Local councillors had a liking for naming their roads after each other but often went for typical estate developers names - hence Poets' Corner in Bushbury had its streets named by the council after English poets;  and later, private developers on Perton did exactly the same. In more recent times both council and private developers have shown some liking for choosing names which reflect the history of the area, using names which can be found on old maps or other documents of the area.

When these pages have developed further we hope to get a better general picture of the significance of Wolverhampton street names. 

thanks to Tony Patten of Wolverhampton City Council for help with the procedural matters.

Much interesting and curious information can be found in the book "The Street Names of England" by Adrian Room, published by Paul Watkins, Stamford, 1992.  


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