The Monthly @Chrisnickson2: the mean streets of Leeds.

Pitfall Street, Leeds [xx0509]

Pitfall St by Daniel Weir (danielweiresq) on Flickr (CC-NC)

You’ve wandered around them and used their names without a thought, I’m sure. Everyone has. The streets of Leeds, I mean. But there’s a tale – often just a short one – behind almost every street name, and it’s no exception here. Take Kirkgate and Briggate, for instance, the two oldest streets in Leeds. The first thing to know is that ‘gate’ comes from the Norse (after all, we’re Viking stock here!) and means ‘way’ or ‘street.’ Kirkgate – way to the kirk or church. Biggate – way to the bridge. Simple, really.

But not always perfect. Swinegate doesn’t mean way of the pigs (with that and Boar Lane, you could be forgiven for thinking we can a porcine history). The ‘swine’ in Swinegate derives (according to Dr. David Thornton) from the word swein, meaning someone who lives in the country, while ‘Boar’ comes from borough.

The Headrow, which was for many centuries Head Row, marked the northern limit of Leeds as it once was, with the area beyond, with St. John’s Church, the original Grammar School, etc., known as Town End when development began there in the early 18th century. Much later, John Harrison, one of the great benefactors of Leeds, would be commemorated in the area by Harrison Street.

Basinghall Street was once called Butts Lane, in memory of the law that all men had to practice archery (that is, using the butts, or targets) each Sunday. Nowadays, all that’s left in the snigger-making Butts Court. Lady Lane, on a more spiritual note, was home to the Chapel of Our Lady. For many years, Leeds Workhouse stood there, too, at the corner with Vicar Lane.

Mill Hill, unsurprisingly, held the King’s Mill, where those in the manor Leeds had to have their corn ground for bread (Leeds was confusingly made up of two manors, but that’s another story). Later, someone else went into competition by building a mill at Sheepscar Beck. And like all mills, it needed a garth – a feeder off the river. So Millgarth came into being, remember by Millgrath Street.

Even the names of areas reek of history around here. Burmantofts, for example. A toft was a farming area, so this was the space set aside where men of the borough would farm. Makes sense now, right?

What about Mabgate? Well, mab was the word used for prostitute, so you can figure that one out for yourself, Leeds’ own early version of the Reeperbahn. Interesting stuff, this history, isn’t it?

Of course, there’s one Leeds street name that’s defied rational explanation. The Calls. It’s the odd one out. It even sounds wrong for Leeds. Going way, way, back it was nothing more than a path down by the Aire. The river would have been on one side, gardens of the big houses on Kirkgate and tenter fields (for drying and tautening the weave of cloth) on the other. The closest anyone’s come to an explanation is the Latin word callis, although this seems very unlikely (that said, there was a Roman ford at the river, and possibly some small Roman settlement but it’s doubtful that the name would have stuck for so long). But as no one’s come up with anything better, it’ll do for now.

So when you’re walking around the city centre (or even out in the ‘burbs – ask me about Penda’s Way sometime), take a look at the street signs and have a think.

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