Much of York's history is hidden in its street names, says DAVID WILSON

I SHALL never forget a friend who visited York for the first time telling me again and again that the one street that stuck in her memory was Whip-Ma-Whop-Ma-Gate, supposedly York’s shortest street.

She also muttered something about misogynistic tour guides who tell their customers it was the place where wife-beating was a common occurrence in a bygone age.

Or did my friend simply fail to appreciate the sense of humour common to Yorkshire men of a certain age, even nowadays?

Whatever. It is previously thought that the Saxon name of this street was Whitnourwhatnourgate, or ‘What a Street!’

If people weren’t actually beaten here in days gone by, they certainly would’ve been able to observe executions being carried out at nearby Pavement (the actual site is occupied by the front of Marks & Spencer's food hall).

Tour guides will often tell you that the history of York is the history of England and although much of it is evident in its buildings, much of it is hidden in its street names.

Walking round the city centre you can stumble on passages and snickleways (alleys) with strange-sounding names such as Mad Alice Lane and Black Horse Passage.

Mad Alice Lane, now Lund’s Court, was named after a woman who was, it is claimed, beaten by her husband. Pushed to the limits, she finally attacked and killed him. It is said that the murder caused her to go insane and she was hanged at York Castle in 1825. More misogyny and abject cruelty. Ghost Walk aficionados claim that her ghost still haunts the snickleway.

York Press: 6. The Cock & Bottle pub in Skeldergate - George Villiers sometimes haunts the toilet6. The Cock & Bottle pub in Skeldergate - George Villiers sometimes haunts the toilet

Black Horse Passage, just off Stonebow, is linked with the scandal of Inspector Turner according to The Rowntree Society.

Turner was in charge of the night shift in York’s police force in the 1850s. It eventually came to light that he was the landlord of several brothels in the nearby area of Hungate and was living off ‘immoral earnings’.

Perhaps his colleagues and the wider public realised that the prosperous Inspector Turner wasn’t a ‘dark horse’ at all but a black one. Or maybe he was a regular at The Black Horse in Monkgate (incidentally, a very fine pub). We may never know the truth.

Many street names in the city centre remind us of the Viking occupation in the north of England over 1,000 years ago. The ending - gate - meant a street; and similar word endings are still seen today in Scandinavian languages. So you can wander from Goodramgate through Church Street and on into Swinegate.

At the heart of the city centre you can walk down Lendal towards Museum Gardens. Lendal was named after St Leonard’s Hill, the ‘hill’ being the quay belonging to St Leonard’s Hospital which was at the north-western end of the street.

Medieval York is famously recorded in the Shambles where butchers would display their meat on a shamel, or kind of broad windowsill at the shop front.

Other streets in York tell of history that impacted the rest of England. Buckingham Street in Bishophill celebrates George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham and boyfriend of King James I. Villiers retired to York in 1651 and had a laboratory there where he tried to turn base metals into gold. His laboratory was on the site of the Cock and Bottle pub in Skeldergate. It’s hardly surprising that the Duke’s ghost was apparently seen by the landlord’s wife going into the toilet some years ago.

York Press: Low PetergateLow Petergate

York is a city with military connections, and at least one street is named after a battle. Colenso Street in Clementhorpe commemorates the final battle of the Boer War where the British sustained heavy losses and subsequent defeat. More than one Yorkshire regiment saw action at The Battle of Colenso in 1899.

Other streets around the city celebrate national and local worthies. Several streets commemorate Archbishops of York and local clergy: Lamplugh Crescent, Ramsey Avenue, Coggan Close and Way, to name but a few. Lord Mayors of York are remembered in streets such as Melrosegate, Dundas Street, Morrell Court and Way. And we mustn’t forget the chocolate families whose names live on in Terry Avenue and Street, Rowntree Avenue and Seebohm Mews. York artists are immortalised in Etty Avenue, Moore Avenue, William Plows Avenue and Flaxman Avenue.

My grandfather was an avid walker and enjoyed nothing so much as walking round cemeteries and churchyards where he loved to read the gravestones and memorial tablets. He always maintained that these were great guides to understanding local social history.

The same is true of a city’s street names. They reveal the history of our locality where, in spite of many changes, the past is never forgotten.