06 October 2022
York: where the streets are
gates, the gates are bars,
and the bars are pubs
Throughout this week and last, my prayer diary on this blog each morning has been looking at churches throughout the city of York, including churches, chapels, meeting houses and the cathedral or York Minster.
But York is also the home of some rather curious street names, such as Blossom Street and the Shambles.
Today, the curiosity value of these names causes many tourists to stop for selfies. But their true meaning and derivation probably made many of these names sound less romantic in the ears of the mediaeval residents of York.
The Shambles actually reflects the ‘flesh shammels’ or meat shelves used by the butchers who sold their meat there.
Blossom Street was not chosen as a name to spare the blushes of the nuns living in the Bar Convent, but is a corruption of the original Ploughswain Street.
Perhaps the most curious street name is Whip-Ma-Whop-Ma-Gate, which is also the shortest street in York and one of the shortest streets in England. This street links Colliergate to Pavement and the Stonebow, and runs behind Saint Crux parish hall, the site of one of York’s mediaeval churches. Nearby are Saint Saviour’s Church and Saint Saviourgate.
The name of Whip-Ma-Whop-Ma-Gate is first recorded as Whitnourwhatnourgate in 1505, and it later appears as Whitney Whatneygate. The alternative names Salvey Rents and Salvegate are also found in 17th and 18th century documents.
Whip-Ma-Whop-Ma-Gate is just long enough for its street sign. It is not only one of the shortest streets in York, but it is also, perhaps, one of the strangest, for this street has only three addresses: Numbers 1, 1a, and 1½.
The present name could mean either ‘nothing at all’ or ‘neither one thing nor the other’ in Middle English, although a plaque on the east end of Saint Crux parish hall suggests it means ‘What a Street!’
In the Middle Ages, local lore says, this was the site of the city’s whipping post and stocks and unceremonious correctional wife beatings, and that this explains the ‘Whip’ part of the name. Some say it derived from whipping dogs who would steal meat from the butchers on The Shambles. Others say the name probably has a derisive origin and has nothing to do with whipping vagrants and vagabonds, nagging wives or errant dogs.
The word ‘Gate’ occurs regularly at the end of street names in York – a practice that seems to have been adopted in Milton Keynes too when new streets were being named. The word derives from the Norse gata, meaning ‘street.’
Many placenames in York have Norse roots, and the nearby street names include Colliergate and Fossgate. Other streets named gate include Walmgate, Goodramgate, Coppergate and Mickelgate.
If this is all confusing, the gates and gateways that allowed access to the city through its surrounding fortification walls were called ‘bars’. There is a joke about York: ‘the streets are called gates, the gates are called bars, and the bars are called pubs.’
The street was widened about 1750 with the removal of some houses built against the east end of Saint Crux Church. A map of York in 1850 shows Fossgate, Pavement and Saint Saviourgate as narrow streets meeting in a tight corner at Saint Crux Church. But Whip-Ma-Whop-Ma-Gate was too small to name. The alley was repaved with York stone in 1984 with help from York Civic Trust.
Saint Crux Church was demolished in 1887, but No 23 The Shambles, which adjoins Whip-Ma-Whop-Ma-Gate, incorporates some of its north wall. All that remains of the church is Saint Crux Hall, which serves as the parish hall of All Saints’ Church, Pavement.
And there are other unusual names around the city too.
Pavement was the first street in York to be paved. Goodramgate was named after the Viking leader Guthram. Skeldergate too was named after a Viking leader. Ogleforth derives from the Norse meaning ‘a ford haunted by an owl.’ Swinegate was where pigs were kept. Gillygate was named after nearby Saint Giles Church. Micklegate is not named after Saint Michael but means ‘Great Street.’
Mad Alice Lane, also called Lund’s Court, is named after Alice who murdered her husband.
I certainly liked the sound of Coffee Yard, and it actually led to a coffee shop beside Barley Hall, where we both had coffees.
As for Patrick Pool, it too is little more than a lane, a shortcut to the market. But in the mediaeval period it was a much longer street, stretching into what is now Swinegate. Here too, the origins of the name are obscure, although the word ‘pool’ suggests a pond or boggy area. Some sources suggest the street was built over the remains of the Roman baths that collapsed and created a pool.
But, perhaps, that’s too much to swallow.
For Cross Kevin Street, the shortest street in Dublin, see HERE