The secret meanings behind 13 Norwich street names
- Credit: Archant Eastern Daily Press
Just what was the Rampant Horse that gave a city centre street its name? What’s a Westle and why does it need a gate? Was Mousehold a prison for rodents?
The meanings behind some of Norwich’s strangest street names offer a glimpse into the past, and an illuminating new way to view our Fine City.
Unsurprisingly, for the city that in the 19th century had the highest number of pubs per square mile in the country, many streets are named for them.
Lower and Upper Goat Lane are named for a 17th century pub called The Goat that traded until 1861 from Lower Goat Lane. Magpie Road, Golden Dog Lane, Key and Castle Yard – the list runs to dozens – are all named for public houses.
But what about the Norwich streets named for medieval knights and the family who invented the clock pendulum? Were people really hanged on Mile Cross’s Galley Hill? And what IS a kilderkin?
1. Rampant Horse Street:
You can still see a rampant horse on the floor outside the former Debenhams department store opposite Marks and Spencer. A mosaic of a black horse which offers a clue to this unusual street name. It was here, in St Stephen’s parish that from 1287, the horse market was held – the street name may have come from a pub, but the pub drew inspiration from the heritage of its site. The mosaic marks the spot where the Ramping Horse Inn stood from the 13th century, which by the 16th century had become the Rampant Horse Inn of St Stephens. The inn had a chequered history: it was where bodysnatchers sent corpses freshly-dug from graveyards to their surgical clients in London for them to use for research purposes.
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When the Vikings arrived in the 800s, they brought with them a different language and left behind the inspiration for road names we still use today (Colegate, Cowgate, Finkelgate, Fishergate, Mountergate, Pottergate). The Scandinavian ‘gata’ was used in local dialect to mean ‘street’ or ‘lane’. The ‘westle’ part of the name is from the Medieval word for ‘fine white flour’: ‘wastel’. This was the part of the market where this flour was sold.
3. Mousehold Heath
There are lots of ideas as to how Norwich’s largest recreational green space came by its name. In Tudor times, the heath was immense and stretched all the way to South Walsham – it was also the place where thousands of men gathered to fight with Robert Kett in 1549. Norfolk Heritage Explorer says: “The name Mushold is usually interpreted as meaning ‘mouse and wood’ though it is never recorded as the name of an actual wood.” In Richard Taylor’s 1821 list of abbeys, monastaries, colleges, churches and hospitals of East Anglia, he refers to Mousehold as ‘Monk’s Hold’ due to the monastery built there by Bishop Herbert de Losinga in 1100. Other suggestions are from the Anglo-Saxon Much holt or Moche holt (meaning ‘great woody highland’) or Muss Wold (‘mossy hill’).
4. Zipfels Court
The Zipfels were a 19th century family of clockmakers who settled in Norwich after leaving their home in the Black Forest of Germany. Norwich was a centre for clock-making: Ahaseurus Fromanteel, born in Norwich in 1607, invented the pendulum which made a huge difference to the accuracy of time pieces. The Zipfel family traded on Magdalen Street, where the court can be found at 111, from the 1830s.
5. Quintain Mews Close
To the north side of Sussex Street are 19 homes built in 2013 – their name is a reference to what this area was once used for: jousting and archery. On St Valentine’s Day in 1340, it is believed that this ‘jousting acre’ received a royal visitors: King Edward III, Queen Philippa and The Black Prince, their son Prince Edward. It was here that men-of-arms and the city’s knights practiced skills such as archery and tilting at quintains – a post with a revolving crosspiece with a target at one end and a sandbag at another – with lances while on horseback.
6. Kilderkin Way
The houses in this city centre street stand on the site of Morgan’s Brewery which was one of Norwich’s largest breweries at the end of the 19th century. A kilderkin is a vessel which can hold 18 gallons of liquid.
7. Galley Hill, Mile Cross
It would have been easy to assume from the old sign that once marked the old Galley Hills Pub that this area of the city once had a gallows. The sign depicted a stagecoach robbery and, in the background, a hill with a man hanging from a set of gallows. However, themilecrossman.com (a fantastic website filled with treasures) explains that this area was once owned by the Galley family and that the original pub sign had shown a Roman galley ship.
However…author Stuart McPherson adds: “There have been rumours circulating over the years that the area was named as such because of gallows being erected on the hills, but try as I might I haven’t been able to find anything to substantiate these claims. What I did find, however, is that in the 1960s and 1970s when the foundations for…later added bungalows…were being cut, a number of shallow-cut graves were found and it appears the site had been a graveyard of sorts. At least nine separate skeletons were recovered from the chalk…all of which had been buried with their heads to the West, a traditional Christian method of burial…you can see why the idea of it being a place for gallows took hold!”
8. Elm Hill
Norwich’s most famous street was named for the elm trees that were planted there in the 16th century by churchwardens at St Peter Hungate. Planted in the square at the western end of the street, the trees were lost to Dutch Elm Disease. The single tree that grows close to the Briton’s Arms is a London Plain Tree.
9. One Post Alley
One of the narrow alleyways which connects St Stephen’s Street to Chantry Road, One Post Alley is named for the barriers which once stood here to prevent cattle from straying from their path as they were being driven to the cattle market close to the castle.
10 Labour in Vain Court
The phrase ‘labour in vain’ features in the Bible in Psalm 127, verse one. This Norwich court takes its name from the pub of the same name which stood here and which had a sign which would today be considered wholly inappropriate and offensive. It showed two women scrubbing a black child and was the work of Norwich School painter John Crome. Thankfully, the sign is no longer in place – a village pub named The Labour in Vain in Staffordshire became embroiled in a race row over its use of a sign showing a black boy being scrubbed in a bath by a white couple in 2015.
Although it sounds like an old burial ground, the name 'Tombland' stems from two ancient words meaning 'empty space' - and the area was originally the site of an Anglo-Saxon market. With ‘tom’ still meaning ‘empty’ in today’s Danish language, it is possible that ‘tombland’ is derived from Old Norse.
This street once housed Norwich’s main market and was at the heart of city life with regularly horse fairs and several claims to fame including being at the centre of riots in 1272 and in 1549 when Robert Kett led a rebellion against the enclosure of common land. Disappointed it doesn’t have a creepy back story? There are several haunting tales that are based in Tombland, including the girl who ate her parents and the grey lady ghost who haunts the area.
12. Lion and Castle Yard
Like so many street names in Norwich, this is named for a pub that once stood here. But the pub was named for Norwich’s coat of arms, which include both animals.
One of Norwich’s oldest streets, Timberhill was within the Norwich Castle dyke and was a busy area for traders. It was originally where pigs were sold and was called Swinemarket Hill and Hog Hill before the market shifted to the same of timber. It was then called Timbermarket Hill which became Timberhill.