Main Street or High Street?

What do you call the principal shopping street in a town? I’ve always thought of the High Street as distinctively British but Main Street as distinctively American. There are, though, some Main Streets in parts of England. I recently came across some in the north of Nottinghamshire, for example in the villages or hamlets of Mattersey, Styrrup, Harworth and Clarborough.

On the other hand, other nearby places have a High Street. These include Everton, Gringley-on-the Hill and (just across the county boundary in South Yorkshire) Bawtry.

There is also a Main Street in the villages of Heslington and Fulford, on the outskirts of York.

I don’t know whether Main Street is specific to particular localities in Britain. Nor do I know whether the term Main Street used in the US was created (or recreated there) or whether early settlers imported it from their localities of origin in Britain.

One north Nottinghamshire village near the villages mentioned above is Scrooby, birthplace of William Brewster. Brewster was one of the pilgrim fathers who sailed to America on the Mayflower in 1620. The principal road running through Scrooby is neither a High Street nor a Main Street, though. It bears the name of a road of national significance, not just local significance: the Great North Road, which ran from London to Edinburgh.

For more on Scrooby and William Brewster, please see my family history blog at https://birdsofcressingham.wordpress.com/2020/12/04/scrooby

3 comments

  1. Contrary to what some might expect, Main Street is an extremely popular street name in the UK.

    Here is a 2009 report by Halifax (now part of Lloyds Bank):
    https://web.archive.org/web/20190901142903/https://www.lloydsbankinggroup.com/globalassets/documents/media/press-releases/halifax/2009/02_01_09_street_names.pdf

    Halifax reported that the UK’s Top 50 street names at that time were:
    1. High Street.
    2. Station Road.
    3. Main Street.

    Wikipedia’s “High Street” web page https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/High_Street has a link to the Halifax press release and goes on to quantify the usage of High Street and Main Street:

    “High Street is the most common street name in the UK, which according to a 2009 statistical compilation has 5,410 High Streets, 3,811 Station Roads and 2,702 Main Streets.”

    So, there are more than 2,700 Main Streets in the UK! Unfortunately, the Wikipedia page does not have a source citation for “statistical compilation”, but it’s likely to have been the Ordnance Survey.
    Ordnance Survey is the government-owned national mapping agency for Great Britain. Their database identifies nearly 900,000 named roads in Britain. The high percentage of Main Streets certainly surprised me.

    Street names don’t change very often, and the number of new streets added each year is minuscule in relation to existing streets. So, it is likely that the 2009 ratios are still valid today.

    And there is confirmation in a 2020 report of UK street names:
    https://www.thefactsite.com/most-common-street-names-in-uk/

    Once again, the most common street names in the UK are:
    1. High Street.
    2. Station Road.
    3. Main Street.

    I became curious about whether there are towns and villages in the UK that have both a High Street and a Main Street. I went to the website of the Ordnance Survey https://www.ordnancesurvey.co.uk/ and downloaded the 2022 data (https://osdatahub.os.uk/). It is a 100 gigabyte ZIP file containing 820 separate CSV files of data by location. (A CSV file is essentially an Excel spreadsheet file.) Some of the CSV files have nearly 100,000 rows of data. After seeing what was involved, I immediately abandoned my plan to try to do my own analyses of the data.

    The use of “Main Street” as the principal road in a UK community appears to be somewhat regionalised. Here’s a link to a 2017 analysis of the Ordnance Survey data done by Prof Daniel Oto-Peralías (Universidad Pablo de Olavide, Seville) and published in the Journal of Economic Geography (Volume 18, Issue 1, January 2018):
    https://www.family-tree.co.uk/news/the-30-most-common-street-names-in-england-scotland-and-wales-what-do/

    That study found that the most common street names by region in Britain were:

    England
    Rank Name Frequency
    1 High Street 2077
    2 Church Lane 1800
    3 Station Road 1629
    4 Church Street 1287
    5 Mill Lane 1273
    6 Church Road 1110
    7 Green Lane 958
    8 Main Street 873
    9 School Lane 865
    10 New Road 828

    Scotland
    Rank Name Frequency
    1 Main Street 306
    2 Station Road 248
    3 High Street 204
    4 Church Street 116
    5 School Road 84
    6 Bridge Street 83
    7 Manse Road 80
    8 King Street 78
    9 George Street 75
    10 Union Street 67

    Wales
    Rank Name Frequency
    1 High Street 191
    2 Station Road 153
    3 Church Street 127
    4 Bridge Street 91
    5 Chapel Street 87
    6 New Road 74
    7 Church Road 70
    8 Cross Street 55
    9 Castle Street 52
    10 Hill Street 51

    Interestingly, Main Street is much more common than High Street in Scotland; considerably less common in England; and not in the top ten in Wales.

    I also learned that there is a formal name for the study of road names: odonymy.
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Odonymy_in_the_United_Kingdom

  2. Paul, thanks for doing all that research. You found some interesting information.
    In London and other parts of the country I know best, I’m much more used to seeing High Street. And reports in the UK news media are full of stories about the ‘High Street’. That’s why seeing Main Street struck so much in Nottinghamshire last week.

  3. In the United States, according to 1993 data from the US Bureau of the Census, the 20 most common street names (number of nationwide occurrences in parentheses) are (https://www.nlc.org/resource/most-common-u-s-street-names/:

    • Second (10,866)
    • Third (10,131)
    • First (9,898)
    • Fourth (9,190)
    • Park (8,926)
    • Fifth (8,186)
    • Main (7,644)
    • Sixth (7,283)
    • Oak (6,946)
    • Seventh (6,377)
    • Pine (6,170)
    • Maple (6,103)
    • Cedar (5,644)
    • Eighth (5,524)
    • Elm (5,233)
    • View (5,202)
    • Washington (4,974)
    • Ninth (4,908)
    • Lake (4,901)
    • Hill (4,877)

    The contrast with the United Kingdom is striking. In the United States, two categories of names – numbers and trees – dominate the top 20. Those categories are totally absent from the UK top 30 in any of the three British countries (https://www.family-tree.co.uk/news/the-30-most-common-street-names-in-england-scotland-and-wales-what-do/) with the exception of Ash Grove coming in at number 23 in Wales.

    As in the United Kingdom, street naming in the United States is regionalized. This Washington Post story has the top 10 in each of the 50 states: https://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/govbeat/wp/2015/03/06/these-are-the-most-popular-street-names-in-every-state/

    Even the tree names are regionalized in popularity. For instance,
    • Dogwood is the most popular street name in Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, and Tennessee.
    • Aspen is #1 in Colorado.
    • Holly is #1 in Delaware.
    • Lehua is #1 in Hawaii. If, like me, you are lehua-ly challenged, read here: https://www.hawaiimagazine.com/5-things-you-need-to-know-about-the-ohia-lehua-flower/
    • Maple is #1 in Kentucky, Michigan, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia.
    • Cedar is #1 in New Mexico (where Pinon is #2).
    • Oak is #1 in Oklahoma. By the way, the name Oklahoma is from a word meaning red in a local Indian language and not related to the oak tree.

    In Florida, where I live, every one of the ten most popular street names is an ordinal number from one to ten. Practical, though not especially imaginative.

    In Canada, street naming mirrors that in the United States, with numbers and trees comprising 14 of the top 20. http://www.the10and3.com/the-most-common-street-names-in-canada/

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