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Young Interim: Lots in a Name (Part Three)

Page history last edited by Tess Barrett 9 years, 6 months ago


Part Three of an excursion, ward by ward, into some of York's ancient street-names and their meanings- showing by the way that ingenuity often rushes in where scholars fear to tread...


Mickleward was the boat affluent area of York, inhabited by the gentry and the richer classes, since Micklegate Bar was the main entrance to York from London. So perhaps we ought to approach it up the Tadcaster Road from Dringhouses.


Once an isolated hamlet, 'Dreghows' is ‘some howe or houses held by the drenges’ (Davies ‘Walk Through the City of York, 1880), who were free tenants with tenure dating before the Norman Conquest in a kind of feudal system. It is not known where the marshy ‘myr’ of the Knaveshire or 'Knasemyer' derived its prefix; Lindkvist (A Study of Medieval York, 1926) suggests the Scandinavian personal name 'Knorr' or else 'knarr'- a small warship! We do know that ‘Knaves’ only crept in through popular etymology after the gallows were built here. These were Drake’s ‘fatal triple tree, being the gallows for the execution of criminals in the country at large’ (Eboracum, 1736).


As we approach York we come up to the Mount; as the main road, it has always been one of the most important extra-mural settlements. The Romans had their cemeteries there, and great areas are still unexplored. Before the Civil War Drake says ‘there was one continued street of houses on both sides from the Mount to Micklegate Bar, but the siege of the City reduced it all to ashes...’. But by the nineteenth century Davies was able to write, ‘We can, however, have no hesitation in stating that the number of human habitations which have sprung up in this part of the suburbs during the last twenty or thirty years far exceeds all that existed in any former period of our history’. ‘St Katherine’s Spittal House’ stood along here- ‘Spittal derives from hospital’, as it was an ‘antient wayside hospital’ for poorer travelers, and the name is not open to other, more spurious interpretations! It was demolished In 1652. Also on the Mount was St James’ Chapel from where the archbishops used to walk into York for their coronation ceremony; Drake says ‘the cloth which was spread all the way for that purpose being afterwards given to the poor’. No small amount!


Ploughswain-gate or Ploxom Street is today known as Blossom Street; the name originally came from 'plogsveinn’ Scandinavian for ploughman, which implies that the fields were still not far away. At this point in his tour Davies says ‘I will ask to take an imaginary scamper with me down Baggergate’ (!) which was the old name of Nunnery Lane, ‘synonymous with Beggargate’. They derive from the Old English 'baelg', or bag or wallet. This ,says Davies, ‘might arise from the custom of persons of that description, who durst not present themselves at the great entrance to the city through Micklegate Bar, to turn aside and obtain access by many of the posterns which might not be so strictly watched’. Nunnery Land and the area called Nunfields take their name from the nunnery on the corner by the bar. It existed in Drake’s time – ‘no more than a boarding school for young ladies of Roman Catholic families without being enjoined by any other restrictions than common’. Scarcroft was once Carrcroft, since ‘carr’ was Old English for low, marshy land.



Through Micklegate Bar we come to Myglagata or Mekilgate; from the old English ‘mekil’ meaning great or large. Camden (Britainia) describes it as ‘a long street and a broad... beset with proper houses having gardens and orchards planted on the backside on either hand and behind them fields even hard to the walls for exercise and sports’. Hargrove adds ‘the situation being elevated, airy and healthy, it is the residence of many gentlemen’. Yet even here there were no flagged footpaths until 1750, when the occupants themselves applied for permission from the city rulers to lay some!


Toft Green or Les Tofts was near the house of some mendicant friars, said by Hargrove to be ‘antiently on the site of a Roman temple, sacred to the heathen god Serapis, the foundation of which was discovered in 1770’. Much land was donated to the establishment by Edwards I, II, IV and by Richard II, which may explain the alternative name for the area, King’s Tofts.


In the fifteenth century there was a weekly market here for ‘all oxen, cows, hogs and other animals for sustentation of mankind’ (Drake). In nearby Rotten Row (so-called because of vermin, since the place was near the city moat) ‘several trade companies of the city kept large scaffolds or echoes used for exhibiting their plants or spectacle plays at the festive of Corpus Christi’ (see the Keyhole Archaeology of this issue). The place was also called Pageant Green for this reason.


Tanner Row indicates the former presence of the tanners who had their tan-pits between this street and the city walls. And Gregory Lane, later Barker Lane, or Baker Lane, is a reminder of the Church of St Gregory which once stood here: it was united to St Martin’s Church in 1585, forming ‘St Martin’s-cum-Gregory’. Hargrove describes Skeldergate as ‘a long, narrow and disagreeable street...chiefly occupied by merchants for the purposes of trade’. Drake takes the name from the Dutch 'keldar' or ‘kellar’, a cellar or warehouse; Davies suggests the old English ‘sceale’ (to weigh), since the ‘common crane’ and in Skeldergate, where all the river merchandise was weighed. Lindkvist ignores the local river trade in deriving Sceldergate or Scheldergate from the Scandinavian ‘skialdar’, ‘shieldmaker’, but an excavation by the Trust (INTERIM vol 1 no1) suggests that the name originally meant ‘shelf street’, a roadway or a ledge at the river’s edge. Nearby, by St Martin’s Church was the 'Butter Stand’ where the butter was weighed, ‘the tenant being authorised to charge one halfpenny for every firkin or half-firkin he weighs or marks’ (Hargrove). In Fetter Land, once Felter Lane, the felt-makers worked.


By Baile Hill was Hargrove’s New Jail;’ the building is entirely of stone, erected on an elegant and extensive scale, reflecting much honour on the city... the whole structure is crowned with an ornamental cupola and vane which add much to the beauty of its appearance...' The Old Baile itself was built by William the Conqueror.


Running along the banks of the Ouse, North Street was in the nineteenth century guarded by several very solid water walls, probably outworks of the property of the merchants who lived in this street. There is seal to have been a 'Dyvelynstanes' off North Street- a name derived from Difelin, the old name for Dublin. So was there a small Irish community there? Passing down Briggate (Bridge Street), and so into the last of the four wards...



Nicky Zeeman

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