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Just Another ‘C’ Word? The Weird, Wonderful and Worrisome History of Cripple

Penny Pepper explores how she encourages disabled people to reclaim labels – to twist and refute them

Penny Pepper at Cripplegate. Photo: Penny Pepper

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Within the bubbling dark-light brew that is social media, a recent thread emerged around the word cripple. Actually, to be precise, it was around Cripplegate. Some young disabled people were upset by the term, familiar with its most offensive form, though it led to me being tagged in a positive sense because of my anthemic poem ‘Cripplegate Town’.

We don’t look like the king and queen of this, or any land,

But we’re staying and we’re shouting, sat firm to take a stand.

There’s deaf, there’s blind, there’s wailers, the war-hacked with their sticks 

We gather at old Cripplegate for a morsel by its bricks.

Yes, one of my biggest hits, and by the end I add the rallying cry:

We are no bland homogeny – accept and celebrate.

Come to Cripplegate, come to Cripplegate, to my Cripplegate Town.

It won’t surprise you that the poem is an exercise in reclaiming the word while placing it in my reimagined historic context.

Although there really was a Cripplegate in the old square mile of London’s ancient heart, some academics claim it’s on the gate developed by the Romans. It certainly seems Anglo-Saxon – this is the realm of Gropec*nt Lane, after all.

Back in the day, I married a mediaeval archaeologist, who was also a specialist on road development in that era. To visit these areas in the capital with him was a treat for a history buff like me, and helpful in my efforts to understand disability language within a historical context. 

He, however, is a great tease with his knowledge – to the extent that it took me some years of our marriage to realise when he was telling humorous fibs. That was the case with the ‘Crutched Friars’, a real religious order that settled in London in the 13th Century – he had me believing that they walked with crutches, as in the mobility aid. I believed this for quite some time until he finally admitted the known theory that the name of the Crutched Friars – also Crossed or Crouched – was possibly derived from the crucifix they carried.

Returning to cripple, Him-with-his-PhD did suggest that it was derived from words in Old English meaning ‘one who creeps or moves slowly’, its earliest use in the disability context found in the Lindisfarne Gospels. And there definitely was a Cripplegate, in fact there were two: Cripplegate Within, and Cripplegate Without (i.e. half within the original square mile, and half beyond the London Wall). 

Some claim this use of cripple came from the Anglo-Saxon word crepel, meaning a covered or underground passageway. Others, including Him-with-his-PhD, point out that the church St Giles-without-Cripplegate is named after the patron saint of cripples. Who knows what came first? There is something circular about the origins of this word and Cripplegate existed in very close proximity to St Bartholomew’s (St Bart’s, still a much-loved hospital). As the St Giles’ Church website points out, “no doubt there would have been plenty of cripples by the Cripplegate, wanting alms from travellers as they entered and left the City”. 

Ironically, I find the phrase “plenty of cripples” in this context a little off – though, as I’ve discovered, there can be a disconnect with well-meaning non-disabled people holding a vague belief that the outmoded term is not used these days, and therefore can hardly be offensive in this historical setting. 

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I beg to differ.

There are still quite a few cripple place names – always good for a sardonic photo op. 

I regularly pass Cripps Corner in East Sussex, though Him-with-his-PhD insists this is the corruption of a farmer’s name. 

In Kent, there’s Cripple Street and Cripple Hill. In Essex, we have a Cripple Corner. 

There are also several Cripplegates and Cripplegate Lanes – including in Lancashire, Worcestershire, Hampshire, Powys, Greater Manchester, Wiltshire and Yorkshire. 

We have a Cripple Creek in Monmouthshire, which surprised me as I thought this was an American term. There is, in fact, a stream called Cripple Creek in Colorado, and a very small city with a rather hazy history.

Staying briefly in America, most are familiar with the Southern Californian alliance of street gangs, the Crips, allegedly formed in 1969. Some believe the name was originally Cribs, which evolved into Crips when members walked the neighbourhoods using ‘status’ canes – locals quickly labelled them Cripples, then Crips. In my young days, along with other activists who first adopted the use of crip as an act of self-identification, the infamous gang’s name was thrown in our faces.

I blame the Victorians for taking the word cripple and its particular cache of negativity – horror laced with pseudo-religious pity – to new heights, grasping its development as a verb. 

In 1866, John Grooms opened his first Crippleage – the ‘Watercress and Flower Girls Christian Mission’ – near Covent Garden because Grooms, a regular church-goer and Sunday school teacher, was very upset by the blind and disabled maids stuck in the slums, scraping a living with precarious work. My feelings on the John Grooms Crippleages remain ambivalent. I’ve been to see his grave in Highgate Cemetery. There’s no doubt they were needed at that time, but such institutions created the concept of care homes as being the place crips must be sent to. Henceforth, 100 years plus of monstrous abuse, right up to Reigate Grange in Surrey. 

John Grooms did evolve into providing independent housing for disabled people, and is now part of a social housing group called Liveability. 

In my poem, I create a scenario by the gate where the crippled, the lame, the blind and the outcast, gather. I know my disabled tribe and believe, with all my activist’s passion, that those forced to gather there would find a community bringing support to each other. My poem – and how I use the word cripple – aims to demonstrate the weight of our history, the eternal irony of our exclusion, contrasting with this reality. We’ve always been here and we always will.

Language is powerful and carries magic, both light and dark. The controversy recently raised by disabled comedian Rosie Jones and her Channel 4 documentary about the R-word – ‘Am I a R*tard?’ – highlights the difficulties we face. 

I’ve called myself a crip for a long time. We activists use the word among ourselves. We own it, we debate it, which is the healthiest approach on our journey.

I’m a proud crip, and hope I encourage others to reclaim labels; to twist them, to refute them – and sometimes pull them back to something with power, pride and agency.

Penny Pepper is an award-winning author, poet and disabled activist whose work focuses on identity, difference and what makes us human

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