Rochester’s Black Boy Alley; origin and heritage

‘Black Boy…’ can be found in the names of many UK pubs, roads and pathways but it has an obscure origin. Several theories have surfaced; that it might have its origins with the coal industry or chimney sweeps, that the name has evolved from a reference to a maritime buoy, or that it relates to the childhood nickname of King Charles II, to name a few. Rochester’s Black Boy Alley was once bordered on its west side by the Black Boy public house, with its roots back in the decades after the English Civil War (1642–1651).

The alley’s junction with the High Street was once the site of Saint William’s Gate and the alley was possibly once known as the Pilgrims Passage, being the approach for medieval worshippers visiting the shrines of the Cathedral. The earliest record yet identified for the name Black Boy Alley is a receipt for paving from 6 April 1708 in the archives of the Dean & Chapter (indexed in Holbrooke 1994):

Pd. Paviers for paving part way leading from N. door of the Church down Black Boy Alley £5. 2s. 6d.’

The route could have been used for the delivery of coal in later years. Receipts for coal deliveries to the cathedral appear in the Dean & Chapter’s records as far back as the 1680s, with mention of a ‘coal house’ that is unidentified but probably the coal store known to exist in the ground floor of Gundulf Tower on the Cathedral’s north side. However, delivering coal was hard labour, and unlikely something boys would be employed to do. Chimney sweeps, most famously young boys, have been suggested to be the inspiration for the name, but would they have been expected to use a specific alleyway to access the cathedral? Rochester also has a maritime heritage, neighbouring the growing Chatham Dockyard. However, none of these theories quite fit for Rochester’s Black Boy.

The earliest identified record of Rochester’s Black Boy Inn on the west of the alley dates to 20th February 1660/1 (DRc Ele 135). A record of properties along the high street describes:

‘…a cellar called the Black Boy under the same roof on the same side of the High Street lying west of the Black Boy and north of St. Nicholas church yard.’

No name is included in records from before this time. Although difficult to prove definitively, it seems that Rochester’s Black Boy public house located within a cellar to the east of the property and later to become an inn, was amongst a considerable number of public houses to choose or change their name to this in the middle of the seventeenth-century, shortly after the bitterly fought English Civil War. King Charles II (1630-1685) had a dark complexion and black hair and was nicknamed Black Boy by his mother, taking after his maternal grandmother Marie de Medici’s Italian side of the family. The name was appropriated by Royalist supports and their pubs after the war to clearly identify themselves for any prospective clientele with Parliamentarian leanings. The Royalist army famously contained many upper-class cavalrymen, but also many lower-class foot soldiers. Although the experiences of these men rarely made it into the historic record, it seems divisions persisted between the battle-scarred veterans of the Civil War for decades (see Stoyle 2003).

When some of these pubs disappeared over the intervening centuries, their names were occasionally preserved in the names of adjacent roads or pathways. The Black Boy inn existed for a considerable time, and the alleyway eventually became notorious for prostitution and public urination. The Cathedral’s Canon in Residence insisted in the 1840s that someone was paid to flush the alley each morning (something with which modern residents of the High Street will sympathise).

Another question is how we respond to the heritage of this name today. It could hardly be described as welcoming, and the sign is located in a prominent position overlooking the public space of Rochester High Street. It could be said to confuse an even more ancient identity for the route, as an approach to the Cathedral for pilgrims and worshippers seeking the hope and sanctity of its medieval shrines, as many visitors to the Cathedral today still use this route. Historic road, path and street names can form a powerful sense of place, and often are a relatively fixed datum from which to orient our understanding of the evolving topology of historic urban spaces from the Middle Ages through the Modern Era. As the name Black Boy slipped from living memory, some of these pubs reinterpreted their names, either with themes of coal, buoys or Charles II, or with racialised caricatures. Ingrid Pollard conducted a 20-year photographic study of the legacy of Black Boy pub signs, including how some of these were used to indicate the racial prejudices of their proprietors well into the very recent past (Pollard 2008).

Do you know of any further sources for the origins of Rochester’s Black Boy inn, or thoughts and feelings on this heritage in the more recent past and today? We would value your input to the discussion using the contact form at the bottom of this page.

Jacob Scott

Rochester Cathedral Research Guild

Acknowledgements

This article is the result of the researches of, and discussions with, the Dean & Chapter of Rochester Cathedral, Alan Ward and Rochester Cathedral Archaeologist Graham Keevill, and members of the City of Rochester Society.

References

DRc codes refer to unpublished documents within the Medway Archives.

Holbrook, D., 1994, Rochester Cathedral 1540-1983; A record of maintenance, repair, alteration, restoration, decoration, furnishing and survey of the fabric. Available here.

Pollard, I. 2008. Hidden in a Public Place: A Report on the Research Findings Undertaken During an Arts and Humanities Research Council Fellowship in Creative and Performing Arts 2002-2005. International Music Publications, Limited.

Stoyle, M. 2003. ‘Memories of the Maimed: The Testimony of Charles I’s Former Soldiers, 1660–1730’, History, Vol. 88, No. 2 (290) (APRIL 2003), pp. 204-226. Wiley. Available here.

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