Conway or Conwey?

You may recall that on Tuesday, Jan 18th, Tigger and I went for a little walk around Fitzrovia – see Fitzrovia. That walk produced a little mystery that I proposed to clear up if I could.

Fitzroy Square and Conway Street

Conway Street runs from the Euston Road down to Maple Street but is in two parts, roughly north and south of Fitzroy Square, respectively. There is nothing unusual about that and I would probably have taken no further notice, given that “two-part streets” are not all that uncommon in London.

However, my attention was drawn to a sign on the side of a house which indicated access to its basement.

Conwey Street

This sign spelt the name of the street with an ‘e’ instead of an ‘a’. That is not a very significant matter, you might think, and I would incline to agree with you. Nonetheless, it set me thinking: was this a mistake or was the name of the street previously spelt with an ‘e’? As one commentator pointed out, the name comes from the Welsh Conwy for which there might be more than one transliteration into English. Just for fun, I thought I would look into it.

If I thought I would resolve the matter in a few minutes by searching online, I was soon proved wrong. Or rather, what happened was what often happens with historical research: it’s like a pool that the further you go in, the deeper it becomes. I soon found out that Conway Street had previously been called something else. That was easy. Less easy was the what, when and why. I still have not resolved all the questions to my satisfaction.

I limited my search to online sources and any books or maps that I had to hand. It is clear that in order to resolve the matter completely (assuming that this is even possible), I need access to more detailed sources, whether scholarly books or council records remains to be seen.

I have, with a valuable suggestion from Tigger, formed a tentative conclusion to “The Conwey Mystery”. That is trivial; what is interesting is the by-ways that my search led me into.

Following Tigger’s suggestion, I now think the sign with the spelling “Conwey” is in error. I guess that either the householder who commissioned the sign or the sign maker got the spelling wrong. Most likely it was the former as otherwise, the sign maker would surely have had to correct the error at no cost to the customer. Perhaps the customer’s handwriting was unclear and the sign maker refused to correct the error. Either way, we deduce that  the sign reading “CONWEY ST.” is nothing more than a red herring!

If you are happy with that, then read no further, for what follows is irrelevant except perhaps for the enquiring mind with a passion for historical investigation.

I am not giving references, as a good historian should, because most of those I have used are secondary sources which often do not say where they obtained their information. Everything is therefore subject to verification, though I am persuaded of the general correctness of the story I am outlining.

For ease of reference, I will refer to the two parts of what is today Conway Street as CS(north) and CS(south).

I soon discovered that by the 1850s at the latest, and probably a lot earlier, CS(north) was called Southampton Street and that CS(south) was called Hampstead Street. Were they always called that? I am tempted to think so except for a passing remark in an academic online site which I think is trustworthy. It said that CS(north) was called Southampton Street “in the interim”. Surely that implies that it was called something else before and something else afterwards. Unfortunately, there is no further information about that on the site as far as I can ascertain. I also came across another tantalising but indirect remark that suggested that CS(north) was previously called Hampstead Street. If so, then the whole of modern Conway Street would originally have been called been Hampstead Street, not just the southern part.

The change seems to have come about in 1912 (subject to verification), when CS(north) and CS(south) were jointly renamed Conway Street, a name that has remained until now.

Why the change? Unfortunately, I cannot say for certain, though one possibility occurs to me. The name might have been in commemoration of the American abolitionist and supporter of women’s suffrage, Moncure Daniel Conway, who came to live in London and who, among other things, help to found the nearby South Place Ethical Society, also known as Conway Hall in his honour.

Any journey to a destination can lead to interesting discoveries along the way. That has been the case here for me. Digging into the past has thrown up all kinds of details about our ever-changing city. For example, in Wyclif Street, we discovered a house that declared itself to be the vicarage of St Peter’s. St Peter’s? There is no St Peter’s Church in the area. However, Tigger has now found an old map showing the location of St Peter’s Church, right beside the vicarage! I believe it was demolished sometime around WWII.

A more general discovery concerns street names. We are apt to take these for granted and to think them an unchanging feature of the landscape. After all, haven’t names like Baker Street, Tottenham Court Road and City Road always been there?

The short answer is no. Viewing from a historical perspective – that is, a time span somewhat longer than the average human lifetime – we see that streets change their names with bewildering frequency. Sometimes this is because new streets replace old or because old streets disappear, are lengthened or shortened or otherwise remodelled. Equally often, changes arise on the whims of local authorities, perhaps wishing to commemorate events (Coronation Road NW10, Jubilee Street E1), famous people (Mandela Street NW1, Nelson Square SE1), or benefactors (Northampton Square SE1, Harvard Road SE13). Sometimes, reasons for changes, especially long after the event, are obscure to us and we can only guess at the inspiration for them.

If like me you found history a boring subject at school and gave it up as soon as possible, it may come as a surprise to you, as it did to me, to discover that “history on the ground”, where you walk among the very buildings and objects about which history weaves its fascinating tales, is an altogether more addictive and enjoyable sport!

Update Feb 2nd 2011

I have investigated further the name changes of what is today Conway Street in Fitzrovia. See It’s Conway Street – Oh no, it isn’t – Oh yes, it is!

Copyright © 2011 SilverTiger, https://tigergrowl.wordpress.com, All rights reserved.

About SilverTiger

I live in Islington with my partner, "Tigger". I blog about our life and our travels, using my own photos for illustration.
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8 Responses to Conway or Conwey?

  1. AEJ says:

    That is really interesting. So far I have not experienced a street name-change, but I’ve never lived long enough in one place probably to notice. One of the most frustrating things to me is different names for the same street in different areas. When I tell people how to get to my house I have to consider the probability that they may look at the street sign to the right of the road instead of the left, so I have to give both names. It’s the SAME STREET please let it have the SAME NAME no matter where it goes! But no one cares for my opinion.

    • SilverTiger says:

      I can see that that would be awkward. I am not sure whether you mean that the street changes its name somewhere along its length or whether it has a different name on each side. In London, there are many cases where streets that are end-on to one another have different names or what looks like a continuous street changes its name at a certain point because of what you might call an “invisible junction” with another road.

      For example, what is now Goswell Road along its entire length once became Goswell STREET after the junction with Old Street. It is mentioned under that name in Dickens’s Pickwick Papers.

  2. Catz says:

    In the greater Vancouver area street names are constantly changing. It seems that every change in local or provincial government decides they want to name major streets after one of their friends. You can chart the political changes in this province by the name changes for things like streets, mountains and bridges.

    • SilverTiger says:

      I am interested to hear that streets have names in Vancouver. When I was in Edmonton, I found that all the streets and avenues were numbered. None had names, except Whyte Avenue, for some reason.

      I was told that Canadians found street names “confusing” though in fact the number system is hardly less so and our taxi driver had trouble finding the address, needing to look it up in a street guide.

  3. WOL says:

    I think in an “organic” city like London, I’d have to get a cellphone I could get an app for that would give you Google map street directions to places. I’m a “visual navigator” rather than a “street navigator” I navigate by landmarks — If you take me from point A to point B, I could find point B again if I started from point A (or vice versa), yet not be able to tell you any street names!

    Learning history by memorising dates and names and “words” is always boring. What really makes history come alive is if you can put yourself into its context. That’s the appeal of visiting “historical places” to see “where X actually happened.” — It’s one thing to listen to a description or see a picture of a mile castle on Hadrian’s wall, and quite another thing to go there and walk around in a reconstructed one and have the physical experience of the layout and the scale. You had commented in an earlier post about a Dickens residence that you toured, and remarked how unsatisfactory the experience was because there was so little furniture and personal effects — same idea — there was not enough context for you. I never will forget going to the Smithsonian Institution with my family. My mom was 3 when Charles Lindbergh flew the Atlantic, but she was 8 when the Lindbergh kidnapping happened, so she heard adults talking about the flight, and then, of course, all the Hollywood films she’d seen about it. His plane, the Spirit of St. Louis, is on display in the Smithsonian — her comment on seeing something she’d wanted to see since she was a child? “It’s so small!”

    • SilverTiger says:

      My mobile phone has GPS though I have rarely used it – just a couple of times when I found myself in unfamiliar territory and literally didn’t know which way to turn. The GPS showed me the way!

      Context makes the difference between a site being something and nothing. The houses of both Dickens and Darwin were a disappointment because they felt like museums, not like lived-in houses.

      I have become interested in history only recently on making discoveries about the places I live in or visit. I resent the oft quoted saying that “history is the biography of important people”. That leaves out the common people – us – who are the very fabric of history upon which the “important people” cavort and perform their fanciful deeds. Without them, history would continue; without us, it would not exist.

  4. Reluctant Blogger says:

    Ah yes, this is just the kind of puzzle I like. It was exactly this kind of thing that drew me to family history research for ages. I’d follow families through the censuses and yes, you’d pick up strange changes of name – either personal or street – and I would just HAVE to try to find out why.

    Whenever I read a book (I read fiction you see!) about London – and I like 19th London – I always have my map by my side to see where the streets are if they are still around. And if I can’t find them I have to check out whether the author is using fictional streets or whether something happened to them – demolished or change of name. That’s why it takes me so long to read those books!

    • SilverTiger says:

      Changing street names have become an interest of mine, especially since discovering a certain number of name changes in Shoreham where colourful old names have been replaced by dull, conventional new ones.

      Street names in modern fiction may or may not reflect real street names but once the fiction becomes dated, problems arise. For example, the street in Brighton where Pinkie lives in Brighton Rock actually existed and I found it in the index of an old Brighton street plan, even though the street no longer existed! It was destroyed by enemy bombing and had been obliterated. Modern Brighton street plans do not mention it.

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