You don’t have to be in the back seat of the car playing ‘I Spy’ to find yourself screaming out the names of certain Oxford road signs. Of all the streets in our fair city none quite matches Crotch Crescent. Squitchey Lane comes close in terms of mystery, and is arguably more onomatopoeic, but Crotch Crescent feels not so much a destination as a way of being …

Who lives here and embosses it on their letterhead we wonder? What was the decision-making process that resulted in such a glorious contribution to our local gazetteer?

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By the time we’ve made the disappointing discovery that it is simply named after an eminent Oxford music professor, William Crotch (1775-1847) we are already into the whole universe of why things are called what they are, and how they got to be named as they did. Street names tell us a lot.

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The Oxford street names most quoted to non-Oxonians are North Parade and South Parade. ‘Why is North Parade south of South Parade?’ goes the Zen-like question. The answer given (it may or may not be right) is that South Parade marks the southernmost advance of the Parliamentary troops at the time of the siege of Oxford in 1644 and North Parade the northernmost alignment of the opposing Royalist forces. Never the twain …

There are plenty of other historic moments crystallised in the list below, a few lyrical ones, and one or two that shall remain forever shrouded in mystery.

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Aristotle Lane evokes an image of gown-clad dons, deep in thought, earnestly discussing the finer points of ancient Greek philosophy as they walked (perhaps from the narrow confines of Logic Lane) out beyond the city walls and across Aristotle Bridge on their peripatetic way to Port Meadow and beyond.

Deadman’s Walk reminds us that there was once a significant and influential Jewish community in medieval Oxford, for this was their funeral procession route, around the outside of the old city walls behind Merton College, to the Jewish cemetery, located under what is now the Botanic Garden.

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Friars Entry, a narrow pedestrian alleyway from Magdalen Street to Gloucester Green, speaks of the religious foundations of Oxford, with its multiple houses of preaching monks – Austin Friars, Benedictines, Carmelites, Cistercians, Dominicans, Franciscans. Until Henry VIII ordered their dissolution, Oxford would have been full of tonsured young man scuttling hither and thither in monastic habits of varying hues.

Navigation Way hails the coming of the canal to Oxford at the end of the eighteenth century, bringing with it heavy industry, and transforming the town. It was navigators – or ‘navvies’ as they were known – who dug out and channelled the water system which linked Oxford with the Midlands and London.

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Quarry Hollow tells of the material from which much of early Oxford was clad: a soft, yellow corallian limestone known as Headington Freestone. At one time each of the colleges had their own quarry, to supply the facings for their buildings, and it was here, amongst the masons and builders, that a culture of Morris dancing was spawned.

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All good street lexicons should contain a word like Squitchey (or its equivalent in different dialects: ginnel, gulley, snicket, snickelway, twitchel). It refers to a narrow path, or, in this instance, the couch grass or ‘squitch’ of the field across which the lane passed. Not so narrow these days, it is a cut-through for cars seeking to shuttle between the major roads to Banbury and Woodstock.

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There are narrow lanes which have long since disappeared – the most evocative of which are Halegod, Kepeharm, and Shitbarn – all incorporated by the seventeenth century into the ever-expanding university .

There are streets whose names have been changed as the times became gentler. Cruel Lane was rechristened Crowell Road in 1939. Gallows-Baulk Road became St Margaret’s Road when the church of that name was built in the 1880s (several executed skeletons were disinterred in the process). War Street was changed to Hurst Street a little later, though the change of name did not affect the tragic outbreak of global hostilities which followed.

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And there are streets whose names have changed twice, three times, and more. The most notorious of these is Magpie Lane, opposite St Mary the Virgin. Originally known as Gropecunt Lane, it was the alleyway in which prostitutes gathered to ply their wares (very successfully to judge by the many stern university reports on undergraduate behaviour). Over time it became abbreviated to Grope, then Grape (as also with Grape Lane in York) and for a brief while Grove, before reverting to the Magpie designation it had assumed in the seventeenth century.

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Beef and Oxpens, Kiln and Quarry, Marsh and Tidmarsh, Bear and Catte, Brewer and Shoe, Broad and High, Old and New, a range of saints from Aldate to Thomas, a Queen, a King … All Oxford life is here.

But who once lived at Titup Hall? And what on earth are Toot Hill Butts?!

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Where do YOU live – and what’s the story?

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Another priceless photo from Stephanie Jenkins, who writes:

I attach a photograph of Regal Court, Headington. It lies between Savers and Iceland (neither of which has or ever will have a Royal Warrant). It’s usually filled with bin bags, but on this occasion all that is visible is a selection of abandoned shopping trolleys.

Regal Court - Crotch Crescent
Could it be that Helena Webster, of nearby Leckford Road, has finally cracked the North Parade / South Parade mystery?

I have on my wall the print of an Ordnance Survey map dating from the survey of 1874. It shows North Parade and a row of houses called North Parade Terrace. Below that, on the site of what are now Belsyre Court shops, it shows a row of houses called South Parade. Not such a romantic explanation I’m afraid; but it does seem logical.

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We recently featured a video of the giant bell, Great Tom, in full swing. Little did we imagine that the Crotch Crescent story would prompt a further tintinnabulatory revelation, this time from no less an eminence than John Lloyd, the legendary producer of Blackadder and founder of QI. He writes:

William Crotch (1775-1847) was a musician and musical genius. He started playing his father’s organ at the age of two. There is a painting of him wearing a dress, aged three, in the National Portrait Gallery. Aged four, he played for the King and Queen at Buckingham Palace. He was Organist of Christ Church at 15, Oxford Professor of Music at 22 and the first President of the Royal Academy of Music (1822-1832). He wrote the well-known hymn ‘Lo, star-led chiefs Assyrian odours bring’. Less well-known is his ‘Experiment in Motivic Saturation’, which theorists still pore over. His lasting legacy is having written the Westminster Chimes of Big Ben. – JL

Two more reflections on street names. Thanks, as ever, to Colin Bundy and Liz Woolley.

You didn’t mention Turl Street. Until 1722, it was accessed through a ‘twirling gate’ in the old city wall – hence Turl. And, your readers probably know this already – forgive me – but one of the better donnish jokes asks: ‘How is Turl Street like the Anglican Church? Because it runs from Broad to High – and bypasses Jesus entirely.’

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On the North Parade/South Parade story: in his entry on North Parade, Hibbert dismisses as ‘myth’ the civil war explanation. But his South Parade entry is fun. In the nineteenth century the road was called Double Ditch and Prospect Road. In 1930, when Summertown became part of the city, it was renamed South Parade ‘supposedly on the suggestion of a German professor said to be an authority on Oxford history’ who claimed that it had been the patrolling area of the Parliamentarians during the siege of Oxford. – CB

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I’m afraid there is no evidence for the Parliamentarian/Roundheads idea. There were civil war parade and exercise grounds, but these were on Port Meadow and the ‘New Parks’. The name ‘North Parade’ was most likely chosen when the estate was laid out in the 1830s, simply to indicate a development north of the then city. Similarly ‘South Parade’ was the southern edge of Summertown, an ‘island village’ which developed in the 1820s and ’30s, far out of the city and unconnected to it until decades later. ‘North Parade Avenue’ gradually became known simply as ‘North Parade’. Miss Margaret Lee, the formidable headmistress of nearby Wychwood School, who lived at 77 Banbury Road, deprecated the use of the word ‘Avenue’ as being redundant and pretentious. It ‘merely excites ridicule,’ she declaimed: ‘No-one ever calls the street by that name.’ – LW

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Jerry Hibbert, the celebrated animation director, whose father Edward and uncle Christopher co-edited the magnificent Enyclopaedia of Oxford has views about street names.

I was on the Parish Council here (before being rudely expelled from it) and we were tasked with naming a new road in the village (Southrop). I was strongly in favour of lifting a name from our War Memorial, but others felt that ‘Stunfiel’ (or something like it) was better – the old word for a stony field, which is what it was before the builders ruined it. That motion was passed, and it went before Gloucestershire Highways for approval – where it failed on the grounds that ambulance drivers and firemen wouldn’t understand Stunfiel, spell it wrongly and end up going to the wrong address in an emergency. They said it had to be ‘Stonesfield’, which it now is, and which I think is so crushingly dull. – JH

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Talking of the Encyclopaedia, here’s a typically informative entry (p.72) about one of Oxford’s oldest and best-known streets:

Now partly paved, the street runs between the High and Broad Streets on the east side of Radcliffe Square … Early spellings included Kattestreete (c.1210) Catte Street (1402) Cate or Kate Street (17th century) and Cat Street (18th century). It was once referred to as the street of mouse-catchers, but for 500 years it housed the headquarters of the bookbinders. In the 14th century it was a narrow alley with shops and small tenements on both sides. A hall called Saint Catherine’s (or Cat Hall) stood in the street in the 15th century. It being presumed that Cat was the diminutive of Catherine, the name was made ‘respectable’ by being turned into St Catherine’s Street in the 19th century. The poet Robert Bridges, in the preface to Herbert Salter’s Street Names of Oxford (1921) wrote: ‘If the silly modernism St Catherine Street were done away with and the historic Cat restored there is I believe no single human being whose affairs would be in any way affected.’ The Highways Committee of Oxford City Council proposed that the name revert to Cat Street and this was agreed by the Council in December 1930, but with the older spelling of Catte. Until its southern end was restricted to pedestrians in 1973 the road was heavily used by motor traffic on its way from the east to North Oxford.

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We are fortunate indeed to have in our midst several outstanding local historians. Stephanie Jenkins (Kennett Road) has compiled an extensive set of resources for researching your own street name (as well as identifying the many difficulties to do with changing boundaries and systems of classification). She points out that the eponymous William Crotch was far from alone.
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Did you know that there was a set of sixteen streets in Marston named after musicians (Crotch being just one of them)

We may think we recognise the musical names of two of the sixteen streets: Taverner Place and Purcell Road – but these refer to long-gone Oxford organists, John Taverner (c.1490-1545) at Christ Church, and Daniel Purcell (c. 1670-1717) at Magdalen.

Stephanie also goes on to solve the mystery of Toot Hill Butts. (Thanks also to Penny Drayton who confesses to having once lived in Crumps Butts, Bicester.)

The Headington Enclosure Award of 1804 says: ‘Also one other public Carriage Road and Driftway of the like breadth of forty feet numbered V [= Green Road] likewise branching out of the said Turnpike Road at a furlong called Toot-hill Butts Furlong.’ So it’s the old name of a furlong. Ann Spokes Symonds, in her book The Origins of Oxford Street Names (co-authored with Nigel Morgan) says that Toot means a lookout point (cf. Toot Baldon), and Butts means to abut or bound (to form a boundary). – SJ

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Liz Woolley (Marlborough Road) adds further insights.

A lovely lost street name is Harpsichord Row, which was on St Clements, at the bottom of Headington Hill, a row of houses between London Place and the main road, demolished for road-widening. A former student of mine lived nearby and became fascinated with its history, to the extent that she wrote a song about it and named her (excellent) first album after it:

There’s a bit about South Oxford street names here:

and for East Oxford names see this link: