Opie Street, nice ring, named thus for a fair while, it gained the name following the death of the famous Regency bonnet wearing writer and philanthropist Amelia Opie. Amelia was born in Colegate in 1769 to fairly well-to-do parents the Aldersons. Her father was a doctor, both her parents attended the Octagon Unitarian Chapel along with other families with similarly strange ideas about philanthropism more usually associated with the nearby Quakers bringing together the Taylors, Martineaus, Aldersons and the banking family with a conscience the Gurneys, latterly Barclays bank with a conscience like any other bank. This group formed part of a little clique of ardently fair and reasonable people who the government could worry about with their strange ideas about social responsibility and suchlike. I’m a bit of a fan of them and do like a nice little wander down to the Quaker burial ground every now and again, it gives the dog a chance to get excited about the badgers and I get to go and float between their neat numbered lines in the verdant coolness under the trees. Amelia is buried there alongside her father within fingertip touching distance of the Gurneys. Nearby is a preschool and nursery housed in the remains of what was once a rather grand two storey Georgian meeting house. The Luftwaffe removed all but eight or nine rows of brick in the old footprint, but there are enough names and dates scratched into those few rows give you a sense of the age and scale of the building in its original form.
Amelia was apparently a bit of a handful, precocious and demanding, she began writing from a fairly early age. Her first book was published at 22, she became considered one of the foremost writers of her type for her time a demanding and attractive woman with a heart and a head. She poured out a stream of novels and poetry and successfully dabbled in writing music too, so one of those slightly annoying overachievers. At 29 Amelia Alderson married an artist and became an Opie, moving to London where she carried on writing, they lived there becoming very involved in the social dynamics of the society class. She was an admirer of John Horne Tooke and close to activists John Philip Kemble, Sarah Siddons, William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft, so basically a right royal pain-in-the-arse to the ‘bury it and get on with making money’ conservative types. After only eight years her husband died of a fever, that terrible non-specific illness that everyone seemed to die of in the early 1800s if they were reasonably well off. Amelia moved back to Norwich and her parents house.
The drift towards the Quakers really accelerated at this point, with plenty of potential suitors chasing both her looks and her intellect she largely ignored them and concentrated on doing good things; prisons visits, hospitals, workhouses, the same type of activities that earnt her norwich contemporary and associate Elizabeth Fry (née Gurney) a home on the back of our fiver in 2002. Amelia died aged 84 in 1853. One of Norwich’s many heroines.
So Opie Street gets it’s name, and Amelia gets a peculiar little statue on top of a hearing aid shop opposite what was the Castle Chambers. It’s a nice looking, but quite steep lane, there’s nowhere to hide, very straight up and down, solicitors and stockbroker on one side in the impressive chambers building and a vegetarian real Indian restaurant on the other, supposedly home to the best Dosa in Norwich, possibly also the only Dosa in Norwich, next door to that is a decent little Thai place. Round one corner London Street flows down into the city like the River Cockey it covers, above it Castle Meadow hunches in the shadow of the Victorian stone clad Norman cube, a curved row of buildings built over what was the Castle Ditches, estate agents vie for street space with charity shops, opticians, book shops and cheap coffee houses, buses nose in and out of bays like ships depositing cargo.
It’s a quiet little lane really, you can park your bike there, there’s a bit of room for deliveries. At the bottom of the hill a little sign on the wall marks the spot where a Sedan Chair could be hired in the 1700s, it’s nice to remember, that little twist, a little bit of history for locals and tourists. But there’s one thing the guide books don’t mention, the previous name for Opie Street, the name it had before Amelia Opie did all the thing mentioned above. That’s maybe because it could be perceived as a dirty little secret. before the purification of the Victorian Era the street still went by its vernacular name, in Latin politely recorded as Turpis Vicus; Shameful Street but the popular voice called it Gropecunte or Gropecunt Lane.
Bit of a shocker maybe for the faint of language, but, it wasn’t alone, there are recordings of this particular name all over the place, Threadneedle Street in London is perhaps the most famous, Southwark, Smithfield, Shoreditch, York, Banbury, Glastonbury, Oxford, Wells and so on, it rolls on across the land.
And the reason? Various. To attempt to clarify this slightly I’ll take an example, for instance, locally you have Pottergate, named after Potters who make pots, Gate or Gata is the Old Norse for street, hence Colegate etc too. It’s named after the people that worked there, Pudding Lane refers to offal or puddings, and relates to butchers, Haymarket, Fishmarket and so on. All places that relate to trades. Prostitution was and still is a way people earn and have earnt a living, What is now Opie Street is where this appears to have happened in Medieval Norwich, for locals and visiting traders alike.
We change how we curse, my parents used to say ‘bloody’ and ‘bugger’, a smack on the thumb with a hammer might elicit a hefty ‘shit’ a head banged on the corner of a car bonnet a solitary ‘fuck’. ‘Bloody’ has it’s own strange history, buried in not profanity but blasphemy the same religious roots of curses as ‘Cor Blimey’. I remember my first encounter with ‘Cunt’ in adult company as opposed to angry fist swinging 14 year old boys charging the air with it, it was Chaucer. “And prively he caughte hire by the queynte” translating that into modern English in front of a teacher caused a red face for the unlucky teenager. It’s from The Miller’s Tale naturally, most of them are just as bad, or good. I love Chaucer and swearing so it made me giggle back then and still makes me smile at the ribald simplicity of his tone and language. Although vulgar then and still meaning the female genitals, it wasn’t a swear word, it isn’t the word it is now in our consciousness, language shifts in and out of fashion and our lexicon adapts. Generally we are now more uncomfortable with racial, homophobic or disablist pejorative terms. Fortunately most of the ones we grew up with have been largely consigned to 1970s dustbin of socially unacceptable vocabulary, others have been reclaimed or mutated. It is also curious and interesting that the French equivalent ‘Chatte’ isn’t vulgar at all even now, it’s reference is entirely differently placed in French society and vocabulary. Cunt became unacceptable along with plenty of other vulgarities in the 1800s and these streets where renamed, this was the age of the covered chair leg, the long dress, the high collar and the Prince Albert to calm that unruly tumescence.
The evidence is still there across the country, some places still have hints or clues, Grape and Grove are popular replacements. Others have totally removed any suggestion of the streets’ past as Norwich has, change the name, hide the reference. Next time you walk up Opie Street, give Amelia in her bonnet and long dress a glance, she deserves some considerable consideration really. Look at the Sedan chair point with its little sign, then imagine a narrower street with overhanging gables and dormers and timber frames with steps up to the top of the ditches, the lives lived out here on those steps, the poverty, the girls and the traders in that little hidden bit of our collective past. Be grateful we don’t have a Ticklecock Bridge like Castleford.
If you want to visit the Quaker burial ground you can find it here.