Local history and street names: an English resource

By Anna Wexler, CABE education advisor | 13 May 2010

Street names offer a fascinating and easily accessible insight into our history. They can give us a lot more than information about previous inhabitants and businesses: they can also provide a glimpse into the attitudes and values of past centuries. Why not try some of the following examples with your pupils?

Street sign reading Cloister Road on stone wall

Street sign giving an indication of an areas religious past © Alex Morrice, flickr.com

Manufacturing: Silk Street and Foundry Road
Through considering the meaning of local street names, young people can start to think about how the patterns of manufacturing and production have changed over time. Much of what was previously made in Britain now comes from abroad. What are some of the positive and negative aspects of this change? How has it impacted on the environment?

Food glorious food: Bread Street and Poultry Street
Just as patterns of manufacturing have changed, much of the food in Britain used to be produced or grown more locally. Considering street names which relate to food are a fascinating way to introduce this idea. Once pupils have compared the past to the present they could then go on to explore the future changes that could make our food more sustainable.

This activity is described in more detail on p32 of the Green Day teacher’s activity kit. This publication supports teachers in planning a Green Day event to help their school run more sustainably.

Famous people and famous events: Duke of York Road and Mortimer Street
Many of our roads are either named after people or after events. As well as finding out about the individuals or things which are commemorated, pupils could also consider what these names tell us about past attitudes and values. Who or what did those societies hold in high esteem? Which groups or events aren’t represented? Why not?

Street sign on red brick building

Street signs can give hints to the types of businesses you might find © ell brown, flickr.com

All change: Knyfesmyth Street to Christmas Street
Street names also offer pupils a great introduction to the origins of the English language and how it has changed over time. Many names hark back to the Middle Ages and have their roots in Old English or Saxon – for example the word ‘chepe’ which comes from the Old English for market.

Pupils can also think about how words gradually drop out of use or are replaced, and how pronunciation has changed. Knyfesmyth Street in Bristol used to be where cutlery was made, but when the industry moved the name gradually changed to something similar-sounding but more familiar to the Victorians – hence ‘Christmas Street’ was born.

Into the future: Takeaway Road?
Once pupils are familiar with the way streets have been named in the past they could have a go at doing it themselves. Choose a local area and ask pupils to rename roads to commemorate the people and events they feel are important, or to reflect the uses that the street has nowadays.

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