Birmingham academic reveals the streets with no shame
A MIDLAND academic has exposed the saucy history behind provocative street names in some of the region’s poshest market towns.
Dr Nigel Baker spent years investigating the origin of rude road names including Gropec–t Lane, Cock Lane and Finkle * (fondle) Street.
The University of Birmingham archaeology research fellow found most related to the red light districts and brothels that sprang up in posh towns like Worcester, Shrewsbury and Hereford in the 16th Century.
Grope Lane in Shrewsbury town centre is the modern incarnation of the medieval mucky moniker and is the last place in Britain to retain the naughty name.
The bizarre research project started after a pub conversation between the archeologist and respected medieval historian Professor Richard Holt.
The pair found a number of saucy street names had been eradicated from road signs in the Midlands, yet some remain today.
“We were researching at the University of Birmingham, looking at the impact of the church on medieval towns,” Dr Baker told the Sunday Mercury.
“We were having a pint and discussing the name Gropec–t Lane, when Richard said there were lots of names like that around the country.
“We gathered more information and realised that these streets had a very particular geography to them. People used to maintain that red light districts were banished from the town centres, but when we looked at these names they were right in the heart of the towns.
“In Shrewsbury, they were a stone’s throw from the main markets and churches, basically offering debauchery and open air sex.”
As puritanical protestant beliefs took over in the 16th century, the ruder street names started to disappear. Gloucester saw its former red light district renamed Love Lane, while Hereford’s darkest street went from Grope Lane to Jail [ Gaol] Street.
Worcester’s Grope Lane disappeared entirely when the Technical College was built by the River Severn, while Oxford changed its name to read Magpie Lane.
“The Victorians got rid of a lot of the Grope Lanes around the country, it has only remained in Shrewsbury,” Dr Baker said.
“The name is often explained away today because it is a dark street that people have to grope their way along.
In fact, that’s nonsense, it is a blatant reference to the sort of activity that went on there. When you look at these street names it provides a fascinating insight into life in the medieval era. Grope Lanes were found in all sorts of towns, small and large.
“But what is really interesting is the role of the churches. They were not clamping down on these red light areas, they were accepting them – and in most cases turning a blind eye to what was really happening down Grope Lane.”
Baker, N & Holt, R. (2000). “Towards a geography of sexual encounter: prostitution in English medieval towns”, in L. Bevan: Indecent Exposure: Sexuality, Society and the Archaeological Record. Cruithne Press: Glasgow, 187-98.