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Kathryn Johnson Reviews ‘Historic Streets and Squares’ by Melanie Backe-Hansen

Historic Streets and Squares: The Secrets on Your Doorstep
By Melanie Backe-Hansen
The History Press (Nov 2013)

historic-streets-squaresThis is a book that makes you want to set out on a tour of England, not only to view some of the architectural and historical gems of streets of England, but also to reexamine the ones that you thought you already knew.

Melanie Backe-Hansen’s “Historic Streets and Squares – The Secrets on Your Doorstep” looks at some of England’s most important historical addresses, and marries the history and architecture to create a fresh perspective on our past. She examines their origins and architectural aspirations, the story of their construction, and perhaps most fascinatingly of all, the buildings – and their inhabitants – changing fortunes over the years. 

Each chapter contains a wealth of information that shows how the history of just a single building can hold a mirror up to wider historical events. Backe-Hansen explains that what is believed to be England’s oldest inhabited domestic dwelling can be found in Lincoln (on the rather prosaically, if accurately named “Steep Hill”), and is known as “Jews House”. This simple fact shows how during the medieval period Lincoln had a thriving Jewish community – a fascinating glimpse into life before anti-Semitic feelings led to the expulsion of the Jews from England in 1290. An observation that applies to many addresses is their journey from respectable residential district to one associated with business and industry – and then back again to respectability. St Paul’s Square in Birmingham is revealed to be just one of many locations to have come full circle in this way.

There are other delights in store – having personally been dragged to York seemingly every school holiday by a Viking obsessive father, I thought there was nothing new to be learned about the street there known as “The Shambles”. I was wrong, never having appreciated that it’s name was derived not from its rather ramshackle appearance (as I naively thought as a child), but from its origins as York’s premier butcher street that led to it becoming known in medieval times as the gruesome “flesh shambles”. As one of the cities premier tourist destinations, it’s probably best that this macabre moniker didn’t stick.

Even the history of those places that are known internationally contains some surprises. The earliest building recorded on the site of what is now 10 Downing Street is revealed to have been a medieval brew house known rather ominously as “The Axe”. Although given some of its later inhabitants, it may be more noteworthy to consider that the man who gave his name to the street, George Downing, was considered generally unpleasant and disagreeable, described by Pepys as “perfidious rogue” – or indeed that the house long associated with the ultimate seat of power within the British political system is built on foundations so inadequate that Winston Churchill described the houses there as “shaky and lightly built by the profiteering contractor whose name they bear”!

Backe-Hansen has done a tremendous job in making fine architectural detail accessible to all in this book, and in tying the tales of famous residents and development of the squares and streets she describes into a wider context of British history. In charting the evolution of these buildings we also see the gradual realisation within Britain that ours is an architectural heritage worth preserving – and that our domestic and industrial architectural landmarks are every bit as fascinating – and arguably more revealing – than any Royal Palace.

Historic Streets and Squares is published by The History Press and is available to buy here.

Kathryn Johnson


Kathryn Johnson is a specialist factual television producer and director – her productions have included everything from grisly goings on in Tudor England, 19th century colonial outposts and World War Two cover ups.

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