‘Paradise’ or ‘Poo Lane’? Help historians recreate England through the eyes of children14 December 2020
Has England’s rural landscape changed from ‘Paradise’ to ‘Dog Poo Lane’ through the eyes of children?
Researchers at the University of Reading and the Museum of English Rural Life (The MERL) are hoping to find out by exploring how nicknames for places coined by children show a unique view of the countryside. Now they need your help to find out what children are calling their surroundings today.
Historians want people to complete a survey, asking for informal names used by children to refer to places. This can be names children are using now, or names adults remember using when they were young. The researchers hope the findings will show what aspects of the landscape matter most to young people and how they relate to it.
The nicknames collected will be compared with those from different eras to see how this has changed over the last century, and will help understand what kinds of landscapes children need today.
“Most children’s nicknames may not seem very sophisticated, but they are all equally personal and telling" - Dr Jeremy Burchardt, University of Reading
Dr Jeremy Burchardt, an expert in rural history at the University of Reading, who is leading the project, said: “Nicknames invented by children are often amusing, but even those that seem abstract or mundane on the surface can be incredibly revealing about how they feel about places, particularly feelings that are hard to articulate.
“There has been a lot of research into how adults relate to their environments, but very little on children. This project will create a much-needed record of place nicknames to help us see the world through the eyes of children and ensure it adequately serves them. It will also help fill gaps in our knowledge of how landscapes have changed over time.”
The new project builds on Dr Burchardt’s research on the little-known published diaries of Jane Holmes, who grew up in rural Wiltshire in the 1930s and 40s. In these she mentions names she and her half-sister Alison gave to the fields and streams where they played, such as ‘The Gateway to Paradise’ (a bridge), ‘Paradise’ (a field), and ‘The River of Life’ (a river).
Some more modern children’s place nicknames unearthed so far by Dr Burchardt include:
- ‘The Monster Tree’ (an unusual tree)
- ‘Moomin Island’ (a patch of grass)
- ‘Green Tin’ (the end of a road where a corrugated iron fence stood)
- ‘GoldenEye’ (a gap in a hedge where the sunlight shone through)
- ‘Cooper’s Dip’ (a valley named after an old packet of sheep dip found there)
Dr Burchardt said: “Some of the place nicknames from the past were an extraordinary mixture of references to the Bible, the legend of King Arthur, classics and local history. These days, common nicknames like ‘Dog Poo Lane’ reflect our experiences in them. Union Street in Reading is known as ‘Smelly Alley’ because of the fishmonger and other businesses that were located there.
“Most children’s nicknames may not seem very sophisticated, but they are all equally personal and telling. It will also be interesting to see if names created by children today are more reflective of computer games, TV shows or something else.
“Landscapes and societies are constantly changing, and we hope collecting these names will reveal how the relationship between people and places has changed too.”
Although Dr Burchardt’s research focuses predominantly on rural history, nicknames for spots in towns and cities are also welcome in the survey, to allow other comparisons to be made.
The survey invites online submissions of place names invented by children aged between six and 18, now and in years gone by, along with the locations to which they refer and an explanation of how they came about.
Names submitted to the survey will be kept and analysed at The MERL on the University of Reading’s London Road campus.
The project is funded by The MERL's Ditchfield Fellowship.