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What’s in a name? It depends on when you were born

Do you know what a back is? Or a key? I’m sure you would tell me a key is used to unlock doors, or possibly a vital clue in solving a problem. Maybe even a button on a phone or computer keyboard, or even associate it with music – it has many definitions. If you added an ‘s’ some might say it was a low lying island or reef as in Florida Keys, but did you know that a back and a key historically were interchangeable? No? Let me explain…

I’ve been doing research into places some of my ancestors lived. One place was called Welsh Back. It’s in Bristol, a city reached by sea along the Bristol Channel – better known as the Severn Sea up to Tudor times, and is still known as that in Welsh, Môr Hafren and Cornish, Mor Havren – itself a notorious navigational nightmare with strong tides. Tales of shipwrecks, groundings and lives lossed extend throughout history.

But, back to the point. A thousand of so years ago, when shipping of some kind was the common means of transport and when most people could not read and write, names and places frequently suffered as much from the vagaries of spelling as from common usage by the locals. Over time, word usage changed. Today we have new words earlier generations would never have heard of, and we’ve attached new meaning to some words which brings me back to a key ­– the old English word for a quay before the early French invaders introduced new words to the language. You can read more about the history of Bristol’s fascinating names here.

But, depending on where this key/quay was situated or which trade route it was best suited to, depended on its name. Some were named after people, others for their function or a part of the world.  While we could all give a more precise definition to ports, docks, quays, wharves and piers, they are essentially the same: somewhere for a watercraft to tie up to. In Bristol, a key was also a back.

Welsh Back was a wharf or key (quay) where goods transported across the Severn from Wales up the Avon to Bristol in flat-bottomed sailing barges called trows carrying timber, coal, and slate could be unloaded. Along the Back, there were rows of lodging houses, pubs and services as shown in these photos. Today that area is still called Welsh Back. It’s the site of many bars and restaurants and a passenger shipping terminal.

Oh, and by the way, the historic Llandoger Trow public house, is said to have inspired Robert Louis Stevenson in writing Treasure Island.  I bet you didn’t know that.

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