meanings and history of the name ‘Rotten Row’


the Rotten-row in Glasgow, circa 1570

the Rotten-row in Glasgow, circa 1570
image: The Glasgow Story



The street name Rotten Row occurs in many different towns. For example, The Caledonian Mercury (Edinburgh) of 10th December 1728 published the following advertisement:

There is just come to Leith, a Parcel of fine Figs both in Casks and Frails [= baskets], which will be sold there at reasonable Rates, in Wholesale or Retail, by William Caldwall Merchant, at his House in the Head of the Rotten-row.

On 16th January 1739, the same newspaper mentioned “the Rotten-row” in Glasgow.

The Derby Mercury (Derbyshire) of 13th March 1739 referred to “the White-Horse Inn, standing in the Rotten-Row in Derby”, and The Sussex Weekly Advertiser or Lewes Journal of 11th August 1760 to “a place called Rotten-Row in this Town [= Lewes]”.

The older form of this street name often has an a in the first syllable, suggesting that the original sense was rat row. The word ratton, meaning rat, which appeared in the early 14th century, is from Anglo-Norman ratoun and Old and Middle French raton. The latter, composed of the noun rat and the diminutive suffix -on, meant young rat, small rat.

Interestingly, an alteration of ratton is rottan, also rotten. The following is from Noah’s Flood, from the Chester Mystery Cycle, a cycle of mystery plays dating back to the early 15th century:

(edited by Christopher J. Wheatley – Drama in English from the Middle Ages to the early Twentieth Century, 2016)
Yet more beastes are in this howse:
here cattis maken it full crowse [= lively],
here a rotten, here a mowse,
they stand nye together.

And The Herald (Glasgow) of 16th November 1992 published Reivers set for raid down south, which contains the following about Sir Maitland Mackie’s autobiography, A Lucky Chap (Sir Maitland Mackie (1912-96) was a British politician, farming pioneer and educational innovator):

Sir Maitland considered himself lucky to have had 80 years, and to have seen such changes in farming and in the farming life. He was lucky that his father, the first Maitland Mackie, had been on hand to kill the rat that fell on his bed from the hole the rottens had eaten in his bedroom ceiling.

The street name Rotten Row has been associated with the adjective rotten in the sense suffering from decay. For example, in The survey of London, the English antiquary and historian John Stow (1525?-1605), referring to Shoreditch, wrote of “a continuall building of small and base Tenements, for the most part lately erected”:

(1633 edition, by Anthony Munday (1553-1633) and Humphrey Dyson (1582-1633))
Amongst the which (I meane of the ancient’st building) was one row of proper small houses, with Gardens for poore decayed people, there placed by the Prior of the said Hospitall: every one Tenant whereof payd one pennie rent by the yeere at Christmas, and dined with the Prior on Christmas day. But after the suppression of the Hospitall, these houses for want of reparations in few yeers were so decayed, that it was called Rotten Rowe.

The street name has also been associated with the noun rot, meaning a file or small detachment of soldiers. In Dictionary of Phrase and Fable (1st edition, 1870), Ebenezer Cobham Brewer (1810-97) wrote:

Rotten Row. Muster Row. Camden* derives the word from rotteran (to muster); hence rot, a file of six soldiers. Another derivation is the Norman Ratten Row (roundabout way), being the way corpses were carried to avoid the public thoroughfares. Some suppose that the name is derived from the soft material with which the road is covered.

(* William Camden (1551-1623) was an English antiquary.)

In the last sentence, Brewer refers to Rotten Row, a broad track in Hyde Park, London, running from Hyde Park Corner to Kensington Palace. It was built by William III in 1690 as a direct route between St James’ Palace and the new royal residence in Kensington. It was formerly a highly fashionable meeting place for riders, especially during the 18th and 19th centuries. As no earlier street named Rotten Row appears to be recorded on this site, rotten might refer to the soft surface, which was left unmetalled for the benefit of horse riders, since this adjective is used, of ground, soil, etc., to mean soft, loose. It has also been suggested that the name represents the French route du roi, road of the king, but this cannot be substantiated.

The earliest mention of this particular Rotten Row that I could find is from The Scots Magazine of December 1761:

Among the number of ridiculous equestrian figures daily exhibited in Hyde-park, nine tenths could not sit the quietest horse a gallop, if deprived of stirrups and bridle, the length of Rotten-row.

The Salisbury Journal (Wiltshire) of 16th March 1767 published a letter in which a correspondent associated the first element of the name of the track in Hyde Park with the adjective rotten meaning suffering from decay:

I have always been offended with the filthy name of Rotten Row, which is given to the course, where these valetudinarians exercise, especially as there are among them many female equestrians as well as male.

Rotten Row is also the name of a stream in Portsmouth harbour, an area where navy vessels in need of repair or renovation are moored. This may show a transferred use of the street name, perhaps humorously with reference to the function of the area as a resting place for ‘rotting’ ships. The ancient and modern History of Portesmouth, Portsea, Gosport, and their environs (1800?) contains the following:

Exclusive of these lakes, another runs up to the northward of the dock-yard, with the very appropriate name of rotten row; as the unserviceable and condemned ships are laid up there.

By extension, the name has been applied to any coastal area where dilapidated boats are moored awaiting refit or scrapping. In Illustrated Nautical Dictionary (1891), Captain Howard Patterson (1856-1916) wrote:

Rotten Row. A certain place in a navy yard in which worn-out vessels are moored.

Hence the naval slang phrase to belong to rotten row, which means, of ships, to be laid up as past service.

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