CAHS Snapshots of a Local History August 22: Black Jack Street – What’s in a Name?

Of all Cirencester’s many intriguing street names, Black Jack Street excites the most interest and enquiries about its origins; why and when does the name first appear? Over two issues of Snapshots, we’ll focus on this now pedestrianised area with its growing café culture, unpicking the story of its name and then looking at some of the important town businesses once flourishing there.

Black Jack Street

The excellent publicity given to the recently-completed BlackJack Project installing two new bronze statues high up on the church tower has been an increased interest in the name, leading to various theories by way of explanation. No one answer is necessarily correct but that’s all part of the fascination!

The most popular, and I think most likely, is as a familiar term for the smoke-blackened statue of St. John the Baptist in the north-west niche of the church tower directly overlooking the street (removed in 1963 and now replaced with a modern version), St John and Black Jack being one and the same. This blackening effect could result from smoke pollution over many years, made worse perhaps by the effects of a large property fire in 1880 in a shop called The Little Dustpan, removing the group of buildings immediately surrounding this side of the tower. That also fits in with contemporary arguments about what the street’s name should properly be.

There are other theories, one that Black Jack was once the name of a local inn or hostelry, a ‘black-jack’ being a tarred leather drinking vessel much used in such places. Although the street hasn’t ever been short of inns, there isn’t one documented with that name. A third option is not that far removed, being another name for a blacksmith and his smoky trade in one of the several workshops in and around the street. More research is needed on both these but all three are interesting options, so take your choice!

Also fascinating is how many changes of name this street actually had over time. A key clue is that this now quite short section of street was once part of something longer, the entire sweep from the foot of Cecily Hill right round into West Market Place along what is now Park Street, Black Jack Street and into Gosditch Street. Not all these names are of equal age. This line marked the town’s Gosditch ward, named Gosedichestrete in 1540, and may through this period have had no other name.

There is a rather mysterious reference to some if not all of this street being called Temple Street in a document of 1459, which doesn’t otherwise appear. Then we have St John Street, noted by Cirencester historian Rudder from a deed dated 1509, which makes sense for at least some of this length facing towards the church tower, but that document also seems not to survive to be checked; so this naming sequence is not definitive.

The creation of Park Street as a recognised name on the town plan of 1795 adds a further dimension, as does West Market Place and similar names at its other end which leaves what we know today as Black Jack Street with a name all its own. This and what is now Gosditch Street (also now much shorter in length) thus come down to the present day.

The Black Jack street name doesn’t have a known official start date, but has emerged by the 18th century, its status perhaps popular if unofficial.  By the 19th century it seems to be well established, popping up in directories, on the Ordnance Survey town map of 1875 and the 1891 Census. But it was not universally popular amongst its residents and a campaign against it had emerged by the 1880s. The high point was a residents’ petition presented to the Cirencester Local Board (predecessors to the Urban District Council) at its meeting in the Town Hall in late June 1887, with the proceedings of what was clearly an animated discussion fully recorded in the local press.  

The argument to make a change to St John Street and for the Board to validate it once and for all was based on the feeling that the Black Jack Street name was somehow derogatory to the street’s many trades and traders. After some fulsome exchanges the vote to support the petition and make the name change was lost by five votes to nine. And at the same time this decision effectively formalised the Black Jack street name if it hadn’t been already.

As a final sting in the tail, a rump of petitioners carried on with their preferred St John Street option, lingering into the mid-1930s. One of these was the printer and stationer C. H. Savory, a business later part-acquired by photographer W. Dennis Moss c.1904. A postcard in his Cecily Series with a view of the church from the top of the street is captioned ‘Parish Church from St John Street, Sept 1913’. Even allowing for the conservative nature of postcard publishing, this is two decades and more on from the local Board making its decision.  

By the time that the last of the objectors disappeared, the Black Jack Street name we know today was firmly in place as both the official as well as the popular name. And so it remains, a familiar conversation-piece in town life.

David Viner

Cirencester Archaeological & Historical Society

With many thanks to Meg Blumson

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Support Cirencester’s principal heritage societies and their event programmes: Archaeological & Historical Society (www.cirenhistory.org.uk) and Civic Society (www.ccsoc.org.uk), which runs a programme of Town Walks in the season plus pre-booked for small groups. See the Society’s website or phone William Cooper on 01285 88 55 90.

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