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Friday, January 6, 2012
JENNY Hursell, former clerk to Southwold Town Council, has written a new and novel history of our beloved port-resort via its street names. Ian Collins reports... WHILE driving down Hotson Road in Southwold Jenny Hursell – former town clerk and ongoing local history sleuth – had a eureka moment.
“Not exactly, of course,” she clarifies. “Because taking a bath in the middle of a carriageway would have been eccentric even by Southwold standards.
“Plus, a eureka moment is supposed to be revelatory while this particular moment posed a question rather than a solution.
She continues: “The question was ‘Why Hotson Road?’ followed almost immediately by ‘Why Cautley Road?’ and then why every other road and street name in town?”
The result of such questions was a novel investigation and a new take on Southwold’s story – a book of almost 100 pages which the author describes as “sometimes factual, sometimes speculative but hopefully entertaining”.
Thanks not least to the author’s pithy and feisty comments on the town’s current past (and present) the volume is in fact highly entertaining, and more than slightly surprising...
Maps dating from the 17th century have been carefully studied, as have Wake’s local history of 1839, the 1818-1876 diaries of James Maggs, and more recent tomes written by A.F. Bottomley or edited by Rebecca and Stephen Clegg.
Jenny, awarded an MBE in the New Year Honours List for community service in Southwold, has also consulted the town records and quizzed expert local witnesses. And all this information has then been sifted as the basis for declaration and speculation.
Our guide begins by offering a general introduction to place names – explaining how paths formed as settlements evolved from huddles of houses to larger groupings including public buildings such as meeting houses and churches.
“As more people trooped to church to thank God for the herring, say, or to the meeting house to complain about the herring rent, longer, well-beaten paths built up on what are called desire lines,” she writes, “and in the course of time these became the street patterns known today.”
When communities were small (“and the man from DHL was not calling”) there was no need for these routes to have names but, given growth, titles, “not usually very imaginative, often merely directional” were found to be useful.
Being unfortified, Southwold had no gates to pass into street titles (though North, East and South labels were to be attached to three of its famous greens), and few directional names. And, unlike Reydon, the larger neighbour where Jenny Hursell has lived for 32 years, no Wangford, Halesworth or Lowestoft Road.
“Of course, there is only one road out of Southwold and to name it after one village rather than another would have been seen as undiplomatic,” the author notes.
“Anyway, Southwold has never been in the habit of naming its streets after other towns; it prefers people to places.”
And for all its conservatism a port-resort with the motto “Defend Thy Ryght” turns out to have been none too hot on royalty either – with (the Marquis of) Lorne Road and Victoria Street two telling exceptions.
The good burghers of Southwold even fired a loyal salute, via the guns of Gun Hill, when the young Queen Victoria sailed past in 1842 en route to Scotland.
Ironically, the myth persisted that those cannons had been a gift from the returning Duke of Cumberland, fresh from his (mis)deeds as the Butcher of Culloden, hence his tribute in Cumberland Road. In fact, they arrived five months before the Scottish massacre, the result of a petition to George II to replace antique guns which had become too dangerous to fire.
Being so dismissive of (if not oblivious to) other places, Southwold named Salisbury Road after the politician, Marlborough Road after a grand and now-lost hotel (residents rebelling against the original name of Corporation Road) and Chester Road, Jenny reckons, after Colonel Heneage Charles Bagot Chester, who fought in the Indian Mutiny.
Given the centuries of bitter rivalry with nearby Dunwich, a street of that name in Southwold might be thought to celebrate the fact that most of the great medieval port had fallen into the sea. But Jenny spies a salute to Lord Dunwich – the eldest son of the Earl of Stradbroke (himself accorded a street name).
Godyll Road recalls Southwold’s great Tudor benefactor – though the honour was bestowed all of 456 years after his bequest of land. Time does indeed move more slowly here than elsewhere (distance lending, in this case, a possible misprint from the original Godell).
Like other historians of Southwold, Jenny Hursell has struggled with the tradition hereabouts of first-born children being named after either parent, adding doubt as to which local worthy may have been honoured.
And as with local pubs, street names have often changed. Now-smart Park Lane was known until 1801 as Slutterton Lane, and I can’t print in this newspaper the old vernacular for lovely Primrose Alley when it was one of the most lowly and smelly parts of town (and Jenny herself for once steers well clear).
My favourite observation in this volume? “The first car driving against the one-way flow in Pinkneys Lane is, given the vagaries of our climate, a surer sign of summer than the first swallow.”
And my favourite revelation relates to the naming of St James Green. Jenny was told by the late and much-loved mayor Ros McDermott that medieval Southwold was one of the authorised ports of departure for pilgrims going to the Spanish shrine of St James at Santiago de Compostella, and that the scallop shells on the parapets of the houses of Centre Cliff (formerly Long Island Cliff) denote his symbol.
Ros promised to share her research with Jenny, but died before being able to do so. And it was her daughter-in-law, Clare, who came up with proof that five of the boats licensed for pilgrimage between 1235 and 1485 had been registered to Southwold.
One was owned by Richard Skilman – himself to be honoured in Skilmans Hill, on the green mound for an unbuilt medieval castle.
And let’s end with the answers to Jenny’s opening questions...
“To be frank,” she says (and she almost invariably is) there is such a confusion of Hotsons all over the historical records from the late 18th century onwards that I almost gave up as soon I had started.”
But happily she persisted and in the end the name is credited to councillor, landowner and retired tailor William Hotson.
He featured in the notorious lampoon on council candidates for the 1880 elections by Harry Read Allen – an even more outspoken town clerk than Jenny Hursell. Here’s a summary in two lethal lines:
To be the worst smacks somewhat of renown
So hail! Thou least loved man of all the town.
And Cautley Road? That’s fairly easy – hail to the Rev Probin Littler Cautley, the vicar 1877-91.
But the sporting cleric may have been honoured not for devotional duties but as one of the magnificent seven who proposed that Southwold should join the select few in having a Golf and Quoit Club.
Southwold Street Names: A Speculative History, written and published by Jenny Hursell, costs £7.99.
The book is available in Southwold from Chapman’s newsagency, John Wells, the Town Hall and the Chandlery on Blackshore – and also from Barbrooks and Boydens in Reydon, the Parish Lantern in Walberswick and Halesworth Bookshop.
Jenny can be reached on 01502 724699 (email@example.com) and she will post ordered copies, or deliver by hand locally.