Get streetwise

We invited ex-postmistress Christine Parkinson to guide us through some of the UK’s strangest street names.

And no, it's not a reference to a U2 classic!

I’ve always been interested in addresses. And from my time working with the Royal Mail, I got to look at quite a few!

Many of our street names have a fascinating history. For example Whip-Ma-Whop-Ma-Gate is the smallest street in York and yet has the longest name. There are several reasons given for its unusual name. A local custom of whipping small yelping dogs called Whappets was observed in this area in medieval times which could be one explanation.

'Gate’ derives from the Norse word ‘gata’ meaning street. A plaque erected in the street states that it derives from a phrase Whitnourwhatnourgate meaning “What a street!”, but most modern sources translate the phrase as “Neither one thing nor the other”. The city’s whipping post and stocks were here in the middle ages, which may have influenced the change to the modern spelling.

But what makes a street, road, lane or avenue? 

When is a road not a street?

A street is a paved public road that only appears in a city or town, not in rural areas. Usually there are shops or houses along both sides of a street making it a busy public thoroughfare. 

A road, on the other hand, is a paved route or way on land between two places to allow travel by transport. 

For those of you living on an avenue, this is typically categorised as a straight street or road with trees planted along both sides. 

Boulevards, though more associated with America, are similar to avenues though with a grass median strip.

They are also typically much wider than streets, sometimes having more lanes and subsequently more traffic. Boulevards, though more associated with America, are similar to avenues though with a grass median strip.

An alley is a narrow passageway between or behind buildings. Often there is only enough space for a vehicle in an alley or for none at all.

Usually residential, a close is a short street that ends in a cul-de-sac – a street that is closed at one end. Sometimes at the end of this there is a large round paved area making it easier for vehicles to turn around and go back out.

A lane is a short narrow street usually without a footpath. We also have mews, crescent, way, place as part of an address.

History of postal addresses

The postal reforms in 1840 and the rapid growth of London’s population led to a greater volume of letters. Mail was often vaguely addressed which was a particular problem in London where many streets had the same name.

In the 1850s, a committee on street names was established to consider renaming streets, but the plan did not meet with universal approval, especially from wealthier families, many of whom lived in a street named after an ancestor. By the end of 1871 some 100,000 houses had been renumbered and 4,800 areas renamed.

Work on classifying roads started in 1913 as the government’s Roads Board determined the quality and usage of British roads. Prior to this there was no standardisation of street names or numbers.

This work was interrupted by the First World War and did not resume until the Ministry of Transport was formed in 1919, which was given authority by the Ministry of Transport Act 1919 to classify highways and allocate funding for road maintenance. The definitive list of these roads was published on 1 April 1923 following consultations with local authorities.

How streets are named and numbered now

The address of a property is an important issue as police, emergency services and the general public need a way of locating and referencing properties.

City, borough and district councils are empowered to allocate postal numbers to houses and buildings in their districts, and to name any new road or street.

Every effort is made to include developers in this process by inviting the applicant to submit suggestions of preferred names and possible alternatives. These names and postal numbers will then be brought before the council for approval.

Odd odonyms

The technical term for the identifying name given to a road or street is an odonym. Here are a few of my favourites:

  • Needless Alley in Birmingham
  • Ha Ha Road in Greenwich
  • Cavalier Approach in Leeds
  • No Name Street in Sandwich
  • Melancholy Lane in Wareham
  • Pudding Pie Lane in Somerset
  • Whip-Ma-Whop-Ma Gate in York

And there really is a police station in Letsby Avenue in Sheffield!

Do you have an interesting address or have you ever come across any? Share your discoveries with us. Email the editor at