How Old Is Old Street?

By M@ Last edited 91 months ago

Last Updated 17 October 2016

How Old Is Old Street?

Old Street, the road between Clerkenwell and Shoreditch, is something of a contradiction. It's now most closely associated with the tech startup scene and the so-called Silicon Roundabout, yet its name suggests the very opposite of a high-tech future. Just how old is Old Street? Answer: very old.

The earliest records of the name are Ealdestrate around 1200, Eldestrete in 1275, and le Oldestrete in 1373. In other words, it was already known as the 'old street' when Robin Hood was prancing about in Sherwood Forest.

Many authors speculate that the road might have been Roman — a kind of bypass around Londinium (now the Square Mile) on the road from Colchester to Silchester. That would date it back perhaps 1,000 years earlier. Could it be that old?

As far as we can tell, nobody has been able to conclusively prove that Old Street is Roman, but it does make a lot of sense. The eastern end connects with Shoreditch High Street/Kingsland Road, which most certainly was a Roman road named Ermine Street. It still runs arrow-straight up to north London and beyond.

The western end, meanwhile, hooks up with Goswell Road. This follows another Roman route, out of the city at Aldersgate and north towards the hill of Islington.  

So, the two ends of Old Street connect with known Roman roads, and a handful of archaeological digs have discovered Roman coins and remains along its route. It seems all but certain that Old Street itself is Roman in origin.

Did it once go further? Probably, yes. Historians believe the route continued beyond Goswell Road to communicate with Holborn (the old Watling Street). A bit like this:

Clerkenwell Road now follows this route, but that road is a Victorian creation. Before 1878, Old Street stopped dead at Goswell Road, as shown in the John Rocque map of 1746:

It seems that the old Roman route was blocked up by development some time in the Middle Ages, then recreated by Victorian engineers many centuries later.

So there we are. Old Street is almost certainly Roman, which means it's the best part of 2,000 years old.