The culture war will be fought in the streets

1900, peak year for Boer War street names. Photo by Gwydion M Williams

The news that Oliver Dowden wants to make it a bit harder for people to change street names got us thinking about how streets get their names and why they’re changed.

Street names are interesting aren’t they? A mix of impenetrable, often very ancient, labels for paths and byways that even precede the Roman names and much more modern, deliberately-applied names that often commemorate battles, statesmen, landowners and local dignitories. Sometimes it’s artists and writers. Round my way there’s a whole estate named after poets, which is lovely.

In British towns you might be forgiven for thinking it’s all about the Second Boer War – a particularly brutal war for land and resources fought in South Africa at the turn of the 20th Century that’s widely commemorated – especially in street names.

This particular war was an early ‘media war’ – covered in often uncompromising detail by star correspondents (including a young Winston Churchill) sent by the major newspapers – most of whom enthusiastically supported the British action against the two Boer republics on the other side. The new technology of the telegraph allowed vivid reports to be returned daily and the papers competed to carry the most gruesome descriptions of the fighting.

The names of battles won and lost, the soldiers who fought them and the places they fought over were all well known – much as we came to know the names of cities and battlefields in Iraq and Afghanistan – Fallujah, Basra, Helmand, Kunduz… And because the end of the Victorian period was a time of much housebuilding in Britain’s towns and suburbs it’s no surprise that there are dozens of Ladysmith Streets, Mafeking Roads and Kitchener Terraces all around the UK.

During the First World War the issue was different. Going to war with Germany, a nation with which many – including the Royal family – had close connections, produced new tensions. In the cities, for instance, many were unhappy about British streets that had German names. Some were summarily changed by patriotic Mayors and councils.

In 1916 the London County Council changed the name of Bismarck Road in Blackheath to Edith Cavell Way (Cavell was a nurse, captured and shot by German forces in Belgium in 1915). There’s a street in Stoke Newington called Beatty Road that used to be called Wiesbaden Road. Petitions were raised, questions asked in Parliament. Changing names didn’t become national policy though. In the House of Commons in 1918, faced with a bill to rename all street names of German origin, Leader of the House, Andrew Bonar Law (who, three years later, would become Prime Minister amid a scandal over payment for honours) said: ‘We are engaged, I think, in matters more important’.

Even so, in Leeds:

There are numerous cases in the Metropolitan area of sturdy patriotic British citizens having to live under German direction, so to speak, and the residents of thoroughfares with such pronouncedly Teutonic names as Bismarck, Wiesbaden, Gothenburg, Berlin, Stuttgart, and so on, naturally resent the objectionable denominations.

Streets with German Names, Leeds Mercury, November 11 1915

The Second World War seems to have produced fewer street renamings, perhaps because the German names had been removed 25 years earlier, but in Essex there’s an estate with roads named after Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin. The Falklands War is reflected in a scattering of street names as you’d imagine – there’s a Port Stanley Close on a new-build estate in Taunton. The 40th anniversary of the invasion might produce some new ones.

Some Nelson Mandela Streets, Squares (and Houses) arrived in the early 90s – mostly in communities where the campaign against apartheid had been at its most vigorous, where Mandela’s freedom meant most. That Mandela now sits alongside Kitchener on British street signs is appropriate – not least because in marking the final removal of the racist regime inserted under colonialism it brings the story of Britain’s involvement in South Africa full-circle.

The war in Ukraine is obviously going to mean good business for sign makers too. In Vilnius the Russian embassy now stands on Ukrainian Heroes Street. In Tirana it’s on Free Ukraine Street.

We change street names for all sorts of reasons.

And in Britain, street names are a battlefield again. Our MP, Co-Chairman of the Conservative Party and Minister without Portfolio Oliver Dowden, who has taken on the role of Kitchener in his Government’s Culture War, is back in the trenches.

In time for the May local elections (in which we will not participate, by the way – no elections in Hertsmere till next year) Dowden thinks there’s electoral mileage in taking on lefty councils. The main target is name changes proposed by Black Lives Matter groups and by those who think it’s incongruous that so many of our streets honour men who prospered from imperialism and slavery. There is a plan:

These proposals will give local residents a democratic check against the lefty municipal militants trying to cancel war heroes like Churchill and Nelson.

Oliver Dowden, quoted in the Daily Telegraph 9 April 2022

Under changes floated by Michael Gove’s Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government, local authorities would be required to hold a ‘mini-referendum’ amongst residents when a name change is proposed. This doesn’t seem to be a new proposal, though – and there’s no detail on the Ministry’s web site – so it’s likely that Dowden is re-upping November’s proposal to give neighbourhoods a say in planning changes.

But since Michael Gove himself has recently said that the Government has abandoned plans to bring forward the Planning Bill this provision was contained in, it’s most likely that Oliver Dowden’s referendum idea is electioneering, but it’s certainly fascinating to hear the language of ‘loony lefties’ and ‘municipal militants’ back in the public discourse, over thirty years on. The Mail has gone to the effort of creating an illustration to bring it all up to date:

A photograph of Conservative Minister Michael Gove with images of woke street signs behind him - Equality Road, Inspire Avenue, Destiny Road, Respect Way, Diversity Grove
From the Daily Mail

So, if you’ve decided it would be noble to change the name of your street to Kyiv Crescent, you’ll need to make sure you’ve got the whole neigbourhood with you.

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