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24 March 2021updated 25 Mar 2021 11:26am

In lockdown, I wanted to find out: what’s in a street name?

The names we give to roads, schools and buildings are important – and nowhere is this more apparent than in John Cass’s east London. 

By Stephen Bush

Like most people, I have found the pandemic has shrunk my list of hobbies. Will next weekend be one in which I go for a walk and get a cup of coffee to take away? Or will it be one in which I get a cup of coffee to take away and go for a walk?

It has, at least, allowed me to solve a mystery that has troubled me for decades: who named these streets? On a particularly empty day – and let’s face it, there have been a lot of those since the first lockdown a year ago – I can walk past every single house I lived in growing up, before arriving back in Hackney in east London, where I now live. I’ve even found myself at a loose enough end to take the time to discover why the roads I know have the names they do.

Some streets have pretty unimaginative ones: Old Ford Road in the East End is, as you might expect, the site of an old ford. (Give it a few centuries and perhaps it’ll be called Jack’s Resting Place Road, because the flyover nearby is one of the reputed burial sites of Jack “the Hat” McVitie, who was killed by the gangster Reggie Kray in 1967, and whose body has never been found.) To my disappointment, Blackhorse Road is not so named because nearby Walthamstow was once so sleepy that the arrival of a single black horse was enough of a talking point among locals that the name stuck, but because the road was home to a mansion called the Black House, and the phrase has long since been corrupted.

I’ve even discovered the answer to two of my life’s biggest questions: who, exactly, are Jack Petchey and John Cass? Petchey is a philanthropist who has funded a number of awards, youth programmes and the like in east London, as well as a local school, the Petchey Academy. He was born to a working class family in the East End, and is still, in his mid-nineties, doing a full day’s work at his charitable foundation every day.

The name of John Cass is similarly ubiquitous in my neighbourhood. Like Petchey, he was an east Londoner whose name is sprinkled across the area thanks to his philanthropy, though unlike Petchey most of Cass’s charity was posthumous, and quite possibly accidental. Cass died of a brain haemorrhage in 1718, leaving only a partial and contested will. The resulting inheritance led to the establishment of an educational foundation that has funded and continues to fund schools and other educational institutions in the area.

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The other important distinction between the two men is that while Petchey made his money partly through the sale of timeshares, Cass owed some of his to the sale of people: through the transatlantic slave trade in which millions of Africans died and many more were kidnapped and sold into indentured servitude. As such, Cass’s fortune, and the buildings and streets that bear his name, have, inevitably, become part of the debate over the United Kingdom’s imperial history, which has flared into life over the past year. The Sir John Cass Redcoat secondary school in Stepney has been renamed Stepney All Saints; a host of other educational institutions, place names and the foundation itself are expected to follow suit.

[see also: The history wars]

The customary argument one hears at this point is that we shouldn’t judge the past by the standards of the present; that things were very different when Cass dropped dead in 1718, and in 1748 when his relatives stopped contesting his will. But this is only partially true. While, at the time, British opposition to the slave trade had not yet reached its height, it was already strongly opposed by many Quakers. The early abolitionist movement owed a great deal of its funding to Quaker businessmen, many of whom have streets and roads in Hackney named after them, too.

While only a minority of religious dissenters might have recognised the evils of slavery in the mid-18th century, the actions of slave traders revealed they themselves knew they were subjecting their victims to a terrible fate.

African slaves did not go willingly; they made frequent escape attempts. No African slaver ever volunteered their own family to go into the transatlantic slave trade, and no European buyer ever suggested that they leave some of their own countrymen behind in trade to serve as slaves. The Africans sold into the transatlantic trade were people who had been conquered and uprooted from their homes and families, and forced into chattel slavery, in which they and their offspring became property. They were then sold into an even more brutal form of slavery, as its inequities and violence were exacerbated by industrialisation and transportation.

Everyone involved was aware that the process was monstrous – the slavers at both ends and the slaves who tried to escape. When people today say “we” didn’t know slavery was wrong at the time of Cass, the only appropriate response is the one offered by the writer Teju Cole: “We who?”

In the present day, we recognise that having a road or a school named after you is a sign you have done something worthy of celebration. It seems a safe bet that, at some point in the future, there will be streets, gardens and potentially more schools bearing the name of Petchey – though hopefully, given that the only living person who gets streets named after them in this country is the Queen, not for a while yet.

Do we really think this is an honour we should extend to John Cass? Is he an exemplary east Londoner in the way that Jack Petchey is? He certainly isn’t as far as I am concerned.

The people we choose to commemorate with street names and buildings are a commentary on what we consider to be worthy of celebration in the present, not the past. That’s the question we should ask when we debate which parts of our history to honour and which to forget. 

[see also: Why we should move all statues into a sculpture park and use blue plaques instead]

This article appears in the 24 Mar 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Spring special