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.
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.
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!