Naming spaces: the Kingsbridge passageways

Squeezebelly Lane, running between Mill Street and Western Backway in Kingsbridge, Devon. Sometimes a bit of visual evidence is all you need to figure out why something is called what it is. Photo.

Somewhere out there, there’s a project waiting to be written on modern seasonal transhumance – the annual trek of the scattered to the lands of their fathers during the Christmas holiday, like Joseph returning to Bethlehem. In both my and OH’s cases though, our kin have left the homelands themselves for the South-West, and so it’s at this time of year we brave a hellish M5 and end up in Devon, Cornwall or both.

Over time you become very familiar with these adopted regions, and that’s certainly true of the entirely scenic South Hams of Devon, famous for its green lanes and rugged coastlines. When we’re there, we’re based near the medieval market town of Kingsbridge, at the Northernmost point of Salcombe harbour. As a ria (i.e. an ancient valley flooded when sea levels rose through deglaciation, in this case about 8,000 years ago), there’s no major river that flows through Kingsbridge, so if the name comes from “Cinges bricge“, the king’s bridge between the royal estates of Chillington in the East and Alvington in the West, my suspicion is that the bridge is that over Bowcombe Creek, a little to the South of the present town – I could be wrong.

1586 kingsbridge
Platt’s map of Kingsbridge, 1586

Although this part of the coast is characterised by such rias, competitors like Dartmouth and Plymouth were better-located to become significant shipbuilding or fishing ports. Kingsbridge remained an important local market centre though since its first charter in 1219, and increasingly as an industrial town with corn mills, ropewalks and tanneries. By Elizabethan times it was a busy town with large houses fronting Fore Street, the main road running to the harbour. The text is hard to make out on the map, however it’s clear that the town was laid out in typical Devonshire burgage plots, with long, straight gardens behind large houses ending on both sides of Fore Street at a mill leat, which fed mills downhill near the harbour. This is nice and clear on the 1928 aerial photo below.

The demarcated burgage plots, and the lower-class houses extending along them, can still be clearly seen in this aerial view from the West, taken in 1928. Via Britain From Above.

It’s here that a small, rural town meets the big trends of 19th century urbanisation. As expansion came to Kingsbridge, so places were needed for people to live, and these burgage plots made excellent building sites. Just like the courts of Wolverhampton, Birmingham or Liverpool (and the similarly developed burgage plots of Totnes, just up the road), smaller houses were built along passageways leading from Fore Street to the leats, which became paths themselves known as Eastern or Western Backway. These passageways generated not just a name but a space of their own.

In The Production Of Space, Henri Lefebvre suggests that understanding any space requires understanding multiple scales – the large forces of history on the one hand (capitalist and industrial change across the nation, the world even) affect local spaces, but these too interact with the global, which becomes”shot through with the weaker tendencies characteristic of networks and pathways” (p.87). That’s something clearly in evidence here. Such pathways come into being through small, local action with little thought to how they fit within a wider picture. “Practical activity writes upon nature, albeit in a scrawling hand” (p.117). But this small activity “secretes that society’s space… it produces it slowly and surely as it masters and appropriates it” (p.38), until the small and the large, the local and the global are inextricably intertwined.

1841 kingsbridge
1841 tithe map of Kingsbridge – Southwest detail

The excellent U3A are a great practical help in this sort of thing, and they’ve produced a pretty definitive guide to the modern-day passageways of Kingsbridge. They’ve done a great job at gathering the personal histories behind some of the homes and the occupants of the courts and alleys, so I don’t need to recap anything here.

The naming of the passages seems to follow four main themes. Firstly, as the map above shows, prominent social institutions lend their names to the ways to get there. In this case, Baptist Lane leads to the Baptist chapel – although as it was based on an older dissenting Meeting House, Meeting House Lane seems to be used interchangeably. We also find Church Steps, Chapel Mews and so on.

Western Backway, Kingsbridge, c.1924. Pic via Francis Frith.

Secondly, local businesses contribute their names. Not long after this map was produced  you’d have found a Phoenix Place on Isaac Weymouth’s land – most likely this was workers cottages for the Phoenix Brewery. See also Kelland’s Place off Duncombe Street, or the White Hart Passage, named after the pub. Thirdly and most commonly, occupiers or owners of the land or front houses, gave their name to courts. These are the most informal  and fluid of all – Trist Court (named for Mrs Trist the linen merchant) was close to Troake’s Court, after Troake the chemist, though that one had changed from Cox’s Court and would later be known as Coronet Place. On the opposite side of Fore Street, Blackmore Court is a corruption from the ironmongering Blacklers family, and Leigham Passage is likely named for Joseph Leigh, a 17th century benefactor (see Sara Prideaux Fox’s 1874 guide to the area).

Finally, there are more purposefully-named passageways. The Backways are fairly straightforward, but Riverview and Wisteria seem much more ornamental. Perhaps they’re named for the views and the flowers, but I wonder also if there was an element of beautifying in the naming process itself – though much older, they’re redolent of 1930s cul-de-sac estates, where the aim was to provide an organic, attractive counterpoint to the city-centre slums they were replacing.

Khartoum Place, c.1920. Via Francis Frith.

Khartoum Place is an interesting one as well. We’re a long way from Sudan here, after all. This passage was previously known as Toms Court in 1900, likely after Mrs Toms of 54 Fore Street, in front of the passage; but also as Olds Passage, possibly because the dozen or so small cottages were occupied by the elderly. It was probably something else earlier, as it was owned by Walter Light, a druggist, in 1841. Here the transnational intersects with the local though – Khartoum is probably a reference to Kitchener’s victory at Omdurman, which earned him the title Lord Kitchener of Khartoum. At the height of British imperialism such victories were regularly commemorated in house and street names. I remember roads called Ladysmith, Mafeking and Kimberley in Tottenham, and villa-style houses in Walthamstow called Cairo and Omdurman, all dating from this era.

Tottenham in 1915, showing the newly laid-out streets
© Crown Copyright and Landmark Information Group Limited (2015). All rights reserved. (1915)

Naming and renaming is a very potent thing to do to a space. A name is a form of spatial practice – a named space is a place, an unnamed space is marginal or blank (see Lefebvre, p.117). Some names arrive in the historical record as if by magic – I still haven’t got to the bottom of why Carribee Island is called that yet. Some are named for routes and landmarks, like Stafford or Canal Streets. For some though, naming your land is an excellent way of stamping your name on history. For David Coal, owner of a patch of land behind the houses on Canal Street, Wolverhampton, in 1788, selling your property under the name Coalscroft or Coles Croft meant that it resonated for nearly a century. It’s a double-edged sword though – we don’t know much about David Coal, but I wonder if he’d be happy with the infamous squalor of Cole’s Croft in later times. What I wouldn’t know is whether something was named to erase something, in the way that the notorious Varna Road in Balsall Heath was renamed Hay Park and Belgravia Close and that’s another thing altogether.

All spaces are ‘produced’ spaces, generated by a distinct mode of production as part of its means of reproduction. On a very basic level, for instance, Victorian “slums” were part and parcel of the capitalism of the day, which benefited from a low-paid and therefore poorly-housed workforce. Kingsbridge’s passageways spring from similar impulses in a way: the need to create more housing within a discrete and limited space. It’s safe to say that the spaces created by these impulses were less charming than they are today: many of them were demolished under 1930s slum clearance schemes.

4 Matthews Passage, Kingsbridge.

floorplan.jpgIn the present day, many of these passages are retained as thoroughfares for those in the know, but most are semi-private. The gated dead-ends are now sought-after living spaces, and peering down the alleyways as you pass, you can see why. The cobbles of necessity in years gone by are now quaint and novel, and the houses are no longer cramped and dirty but “bijou” and “sympathetically restored”. This in Matthews Passage (the “St” was added by the estate agent, an attempt to produce a space by naming it?) sold for £138,000 last year, and is now available as a holiday let at £706 per week in the high season.  As Lefebvre would no doubt note, spaces once healthy and productive as gardens, then required for the industrial capitalism of the day, are reappropriated for modern, post-industrial capitalism. Spaces once semi-public are now semi-privatised, given new meaning by locked gates and the tourist pound.

5 thoughts on “Naming spaces: the Kingsbridge passageways

  1. After reading the article, and being a Brummie, two things stuck in my mind. The first was Varna Road and the other was our own Needless Alley, which I must have walked along a thousand times. I didn’t know why it was called Needless and so started to dig around and some interesting points emerged.

    I was surprised to find that it may be the only one in the country and dates from around 1731. Turning to historian Chris Upton one can see the similarities with Varna Road!

    All the best, Pedro

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Did a bit of research on 4 Matthews Passage since we bought it last year.Have a look at Nicholas Gillard’s Will and Testament 1816 and it describes the original buildings in some detail,Stables and Candle Shop.1980’S they were and clothes shops and were revamped in the 90’s

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  3. As a Kingsbridgian by up bringing I roamed.the passageways frequently as short cuts, and middle age found me retracing old haunts and subsequently being annoyed by the privatisation and gated gardens, questioning the legality of this within a right of way. I love this article, it is both thoughtful and rambling/like the alleyways themselves.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Hi, Simon:
    Was looking for a photo of Squeezebelly Alley in Kingsbridge which I remember from my schooldays in the 1950s in Kingsbridge and which I showed my two daughters the one time I took them there. In my day, we had to walk from Kingsbridge Grammar School down West Alvington Hill, past the then active railway station, and then up Fore Street to the Old Grammar School refectory (and back) for lunch every day, now the Cookworthy Museum. Many’s the time we walked via Squeezebelly Alley.

    Thank you for the wonderful blog and great photos. I have a print of the Platt’s map from 1596.

    PS. I “graduated” from Kingsbridge Grammar School in 1959 and then got a B.A. (Gen.Arts) with a focus on History and Geography at Leicester University in 1962. Left the UK in 1964 to see the world, but got no further than Vancouver, Canada where I’ve lived ever since. I’ve always thought that if the field of Historical Geography existed in 1959, I would have chosen that path.

    Liked by 1 person

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