The Poleman of China Street
When Charles Dickens visited Lancaster in 1857, China Street was only 8ft wide. In his collaboration with Wilkie Collins, “A Lazy Tour of Two Idle Apprentices”, Dickens wrote: “if a visitor on his arrival at Lancaster could be accommodated with a pole which would push the opposite side of the street some yards farther off, it would be better for all parties”
But perhaps such a pole really did exist…
The pole itself had no decoration or carving or anything at all to mark it out as interesting. It was simply a long stick used by the washerwomen of China Lane to keep their laundry lines out of the mud. No-one ever discovered the true source of its magic but it is well known that William Birch, the washerwoman’s son, was the first to discover the Pole’s power.
He was a canny young man and he set himself up in a little booth at the narrowest point of China Lane. Whenever a carter with a wide load came by, he’d charge tuppence to broaden the passage just enough to allow them through. Day by day the tuppences piled up and William dreamed of becoming a rich man.
But every time William used the pole, the street grew wider and more carters could pass without his help. After a mere month, the street was too wide for even the pole to reach across it. William’s dreams of riches crumbled. He gave up his booth and his tuppences and after a lot of grumbling went back to help his ma-am and the laundry.
And that is the story of how China Lane became China Street, as wide as it is today and no more.