Channel 12 News reported last night that Westminster Street is spelled Westminister Street on a couple of signs in downtown Providence, one of them at the corner of Empire Street. And that it has been that way for years. And nobody noticed until now. One man quoted said he felt “stupid” for not noticing. So do I. But I am not on TV so I have time to explain why. (Time to explain things is not a typical characteristic of TV news.)
As Dr. Downtown (my longtime nom de plume when I was at the Providence Journal), I have been aware that the street is named Westminster for over three decades. Why should I look at a street sign? I know where I am, and know how it’s spelled. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.
On the other hand, I am a journalist, too, in fact a “print” journalist, to the extent anyone can be such a thing these days. I type on a keyboard, even if you can’t line your birdcage or wrap your fish in it, unless a reader prints it out on a printer. So as a print journalist with pretensions to a capacity for editing and proofreading the printed word, and as a print journalist whose gaze often takes in the misspelled street signs, I should have noticed that the name Westminster was misspelled on those street signs, no doubt by an accidental assumption that the reference in the name is to some sort of minister, probably a man of religion.
No, the reference is to a section of London known as Westminster, where the nobs (the nobility) live, work (or don’t) and breed (or used to). By way of apology for not noticing the error on the street signs and raising a stink about it, I offer a historical tidbit or factoid of which many local readers may be unaware.
In fact, I will quote a passage on page 33 of my book Lost Providence, published by History Press, which goes on sale August 28. Chapter 1, called “Lost: The Benjamin Hoppin House,” tells the story of the breakup of a congregation in the town, then a bit over a century in existence.
The congregational breach is described in Weybosset Bridge by Arthur E. Wilson. Suffice it to say that Roger Williams’s principles of religious freedom – “soul liberty” – did not preclude schism, secession and every sort of doctrinal squabble. Indeed, in the previous century, the aging Williams was given the post of toll-taker for the Weybosset Bridge by the General Assembly, which stripped him of the post not much later for reasons that have not come down to us but that may stem from the founder’s argumentative character. As one can imagine, he may have caused unwanted delay in crossing the bridge. Williams was long gone by the time Snow set up the New Light [church], but his cranky spirit lingered, as suggested by Snow’s petition to the General Assembly in 1770 to split off his village, too, from Providence to form the town of Westminster (“Weybosset” is scratched out and overwritten on the petition). In London, Westminster was (and is) the seat of Parliament, which often tried the patience of British royalty, much as Snow and his followers chafed under the “despotic rule,” as they put it, of the descendants of Roger Williams on the Neck [Now the East Side]. The assembly rejected the petition.
So there you are. Westminster Street may have been named by a minister, but not for a minister. It is not spelled Westminister Street. One month after my book is published I will be speaking about it in a talk hosted by the Preservation Society of Newport County. The event will be at Rosecliff, on Bellview Avenue – oops! I mean Bellevue Avenue.