Tracking Local History Through Street Names

When we walk through our modern streets crowded with shoppers, chain restaurants and modern architecture, there often doesn't seem to be much left of earlier times, hints of the long-gone history of our towns and cities. 

But secrets about the past can lie hidden in our road signs and street names. 

Here are some words on road signs to look for that might help you unravel your local history... 

Photo by Kai Bossom on Unsplash

Rude words

A lot of these were cleaned up by subsequent generations but references to sexual activity or (ahem) private parts in street names could indicate that the area was used as a red light district in earlier times. There were Gropecunt Lanes in York, Oxford and London in the Medieval period and confirmed cases of prostitution there. Other names like Cock Lane, Love Lane, Stew Lane (a reference to the brothels of the time, called 'stews') or Ogle Lane might also provide a link to a street's raunchy past. 

Murder or Execution

I remember researching where Reading's executions were carried out, and found it called, on modern maps, Gallowstree Common. Other names like Dead Man's Lane, Hangman's Wood or similar could indicate an old execution site that may have been used up until the 1800s, while Cut-Throat Alley could indicate that the street had a bad reputation. 

Important Structures

Castle Lane and Castle Street, even in a town that has no surviving castle, could mean there once was one. In Reading and Plymouth, references to a castle do indicate an old fortified structure that once stood here. In Donnington near Newbury, Castle Lane still leads to the ruin of Donnington Castle. Any saints' names could have led to a church or a chapel and Nuns or Monks may refer to an abbey. If you have a Water Lane or Water Road and no evidence of water nearby, look for signs of an old well or a bricked over river. Scout out old maps or sources for anywhere that references a castle, abbey, station, church or a friary: it may have been there once. 


Place names that are named after people - usually their surnames - can give us information about the influential families and individuals of a town's history. It doesn't necessarily link that place in particular to a person - a sixteenth century family may have had a street named after them in the 1900s, for example - but it does indicate who once held local power. Vaguer names like Empress Road, King Street or Queens Road are a little more difficult to unravel, but look through your sources and you might be able to find out when the street name was given and tie it to a local event like a royal visit or a national one, like a big anniversary or Jubilee. 

Trades and Occupations

This is one of my favourite street names to unravel, and it's usually related to that specific area, too. Traces of Medieval occupations and trades can still be seen in the street names of our modern towns and cities. Look for names like Dyer, Vintner, Wool, Baker, Butcher, Smiths, Corn, Guild, Weaver or Cloth. This might give you a clue into what trades went on here, centuries ago. 

Town or City Names

Have local street names named after places like Salisbury Road, London Street or Bath Road but don't live anywhere near them? If the road is a main one, it could be that these were old walking or carriage routes that local people took to these places. People regularly travelled across the country and overseas in the Medieval periods, but it wasn't until the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that travel became easier and more far-flung.  

Place names should never be relied upon as sole evidence of an activity or personal connection in their own right, but can indicate a use of the area that can inspire and lead further research. Road, street and place names do change throughout history, and it's worth checking old documents and maps to see what names previous generations used for the streets we walk in today. 

Have fun finding out more about where you live through the clues hidden in the street names we still use today. 

Did you enjoy this? You might also like Where Was Reading's Lost Castle?, 7 Reasons You Really Don't Wish There Was a Time Machine and 10 Things To Know About Stratford Upon Avon Before You Visit

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