Place-Names Make History

Place-Names Make History

Fifteen hundred years ago Britain experienced a wave of illegal immigration. Boat people, who had crossed the North Sea from the coastlands of northern Europe, spread inland, using rivers such as the Thames and came ashore, wherever they found a natural gravelly beach, at places like Isleworth. Perhaps a few of them were political refugees, but most of them were economic migrants.

Writing about 730 AD, the monk and scholar, Bede, recorded the origins of the great migrations that began the anglicisation of Britain in the mid-fifth century.

  • The Jutes are linked to Denmark and north Germany where their homelands are hard to distinguish from those of their neighbours, the Angles. But Bede was certain of the Jutish descent of the people of Kent, the Isle of Wight and West Sussex.
  • The Angles settled in East Anglia and the East Midlands. They spread westwards to create the Mercian (or marchland) kingdom along the new frontier between the North European immigrants and the Britons of Wales and the north. They also founded the Kingdom of Northumbria.
  • The Saxons came from eastern Germany, but many had been displaced to the coastlands of the North Sea by the movements of peoples all along Europe’s unstable eastern frontier. Their settlements spread along the South Coast and the Thames Valley; these became the provinces and kingdoms of Essex (the East Saxons), Middlesex (the Middle Saxons), Sussex (the South Saxons) and Wessex (the West Saxons).

Some Anglo-Saxons were in Britain before the end of Roman rule. A few came as seamen and traders. Many served with the Roman army and fleet, helping to protect Britain’s trade from piracy and its shores from Germanic raiders. Some of the rulers of post-Roman Britain welcomed Anglo-Saxon mercenaries. But, they were to find that their growing dependence on foreign soldiers would upset the balance of power in their petty-kingdoms.

By the mid-fifth century, people all along the continental North Sea coastlands had heard that Britain was a fertile, relatively under-populated and politically fragmented island that offered good prospects to enterprising migrants. So many settlers came to Britain that Bede recorded the German homelands of the Angles as almost un-populated, two hundred and fifty years after the beginning of the great migration.

The elements that make up Anglo-Saxon place-names are divided into 3 categories:

  • Personal names,
  • Habitative elements (related to the economic function and status of a settlement),
  • Topographical elements (describing the situation of a named location or features of its landscape).

Hounslow is a good example of an Anglo-Saxon place-name combining a personal name and a topographical element. In 1086 Honeslaw was the name of a Thames-side hundred or district that extended southwards to include Twickenham, westwards across Hounslow Heath and northwards as far as Hanwell and Hayes.

The Anglo-Saxon root words Hundi and hlaw refer to Hundi’s barrow or artificial mound (hlaw). Hundi, the Old English for hound-dog, is here used as the personal name of a pagan Anglo-Saxon.

South West Middlesex is littered with the names of pagan Anglo-Saxons who may have been amongst the first migrants to settle in the district. The habitative element worth (meaning an enclosure associated with a homestead) is usually found coupled to an Anglo-Saxon personal name.

Pick up a London A-Z and look for names ending in worth. Around Hounslow you will see the homesteads associated with Beofor (Beavers Farm was once called Babbaworth), Gistel (Isleworth) and Hana (Hanworth). Each place-name contains the personal name of a long-forgotten Anglo-Saxon.

Imagine “Hundi”…does he have a long, dog-like face and big, sad eyes? What about “Beofor” the Beaver…is he a regular hard worker with prominent front teeth? And “Hana”, the cocky little bantam hen…does he strut about with his chest in front of his chin, always boasting about himself? What would they think if you could go back in time and tell them that people would still know and use their names fifteen hundred years in the future?

Hounslow isn’t just any little place-name. It’s the one attached to the whole Hundred, or district, at the time of the Domesday Book. It’s very likely that the ancient mound, or “law”, marked the meeting place for the district’s council of elders and community court. Here, on its grassy banks family quarrels and disputes over land and livestock were heard and judged. Rents and fines were paid and news and gossip were exchanged. The local place-name Smallbury Green includes the element beorg (later distorted to bury). In Southern English place-names this word usually indicates the existence of a barrow, or man-made mound in Anglo-Saxon times.

So, what happened to it? Well, if it stood on Smallbury Green it was probably quarried away to repair the great London Road during the middle ages. Hounslow stands on gravelly sub-soils and the gravel mound, heaped up from a broad ditch excavated around it, may have gradually disappeared into the potholes of the road that the Romans built nearby; a road that has remained in use ever since Roman times. The first map of Hounslow and district, made by Moses Glover in 1635, shows Smallbury Green as a common, pock-marked by gravel- pits, all excavated to maintain the trunk road that runs across it.

Topographical Place-Names

Anglo-Saxon settlers came to Britain to make a living as farmers. The landscape and running water were important factors in their daily lives.  Their topographical place-names preserve a wide range of words for hills, valleys, slopes, rivers, springs, streams, wetland and woodland. Each word had a subtly different meaning that signified particular characteristics of each landscape feature.

The late Margaret Gelling, the grand dame of English place-name studies, believed that: in an age with little literacy and no maps or signposts to comfort and direct the traveller, topographical place-names enabled a string of directions to be given and followed, for miles across country. Over years of studying and photographing the English landscape, she has observed that topographical place-names very often describe the form of a hill or another feature of the landscape as the traveller would view them from a nearby old Roman Road or other ancient trackway.

Springs, fords and riverside land

Fulwell is the prolific spring (wielle), although it might equally have been the foul one! Botwell is the spring known for its healing properties. Dockwell was named for its surrounding vegetation and Stanwell – the stony spring – for the absence of any. Bedfont is the spring (or fount), possibly in a bed, or hollow, in the ground. The use of the Latin element funta at Bedfont may indicate that the Romans modified this spring and improved access to it for travellers on the Roman Road in need of refreshment.  It may be that the bed element indicates a stone trough rather than a hollow in the ground and comes from the Old English word byden (vessel or tub). The sites of most of the handful of English funta-names are associated with old Roman Roads or clustered around Roman settlements where contact between Latin and English speakers has resulted in a legacy of ‘bi-lingual’ place-names such as Bed-font and Wickham (vicus + ham).

The habitative place-name element worth is so often found coupled to a personal name that, at Hanworth, we can ascribe its ‘cocky’ first element to an Anglo-Saxon homesteader’s personal name. But Hanwell is different; in the absence of worth this ‘hen’ name probably indicates a spring (wielle or well) frequented by domestic fowl or poultry.

On our southern horizon, where the North Downs rise, Ewell is a great wielle – a spring big enough to fill a river (ea); and so it is, for it is here that the Hogsmill River begins its journey down to the Thames at Kingston.

“Ford” is the second most common topographical element in English place-names. It is thought to be amongst the earliest naming terms used by the Anglo-Saxon settlers. Most ford names began by simply marking the place where a minor routeway between two settlements crossed a stream or river. Ashford, on the River Ash is a local example. Some ‘fords’ later grew into towns and sometimes into cities and county towns; but most did not.

Three local fords are associated with a major routeway. The complex Longford at Colnbrook and Cranford, are on the mediaeval Bath Road. A settlement at Brentford has marked the Great Western Road’s crossing of the River Brent since Roman times.

References to the names of the rivers that are forded and to animals and to birds make typical ford place-names. The River Crane was named Fiscebourne (Fishbourne) in an early Saxon charter. But by the end of the 11th century the river’s association with a well-used ford at Cranford, which was frequented by cranes or herons, had brought about the re-naming of much of its course.

Draeg has the opposite meaning to ford. At West Drayton on the River Colne the name draeg-tun indicates a riverbank location where boats can be dragged out of the water and manhandled overland, to avoid an obstacle to navigation or a lengthy or difficult river bend.

Hamm is a common Thames-side place-name element indicating land within the bend or loop of a river. It’s often confused with the habitative element ham (meaning a village or small settlement) but a careful look at the location and at early forms of the place-name can often identify topographical hamms. Local examples of land in the bend of a river include: Fulham and Turnham Green, where a loop of the River Thames swings southwards around Chiswick and the ‘turn’ element in this place-name is either tautological or emphatic. The Ham in Brentford names low-lying land in a bend of the River Brent rather than indicating an ancient settlement site. Twickenham, Hampton and Laleham may also be riverside hamm names.

Some distant hills and a nearby valley

Iver, in Buckinghamshire, is a little beyond the bounds of West Middlesex. But it is an excellent example of a place-name that preserves a lost Anglo-Saxon word, ofer, once used with scientific rigour to describe a hill with a convex slope.

The Anglo-Saxons used the word dun (or don) for a prominent low hill with a top that was flat enough to become a settlement site. Dun (not to be confused with the Scottish ‘dun’ meaning a fortified settlement) is an early Saxon naming term that lost currency as a settlement name after the 9th century, although its variant ‘down’ continued to be used in field names and for uninhabited hills. Hillingdon and Horsenden Hill are typical West Middlesex duns named using a diminutive of the Anglo-Saxon male personal name Hildric, and the personal name Horsa.

The importance of site visits and of awareness of the earliest and least corrupted forms of a place-name to the true student can be judged from the case of the name Horsenden Hill. Its ‘den’ ending is a distortion of the original topographical element don. But den is itself a common Anglo-Saxon place-name element  (denu) meaning a dean or valley. Not many valleys on the flat plain of South West Middlesex, you might think! Well, that’s true, but there is one – Whitton Dean (or Dene).

The Burket Brook, now dry and with a paved road occupying its former streambed, cut this shallow valley as it ran off the Taplow gravel terrace that forms Hounslow Heath and down to the River Crane, near Isleworth. This parish boundary stream rose from springs on Hounslow Heath and still separates Isleworth from Twickenham, its former course preserved in the parish and borough boundary. Its valley head lies at the junction of Whitton Road, Hounslow; Hounslow Road, Whitton; and Whitton Dene. The valley sides are well-marked by uphill streets such as Millwood Road and Colonial Avenue. This author suggests that the valley’s original name may have been that of an Anglo-Saxon: Moke’s Dean or Mocca’s Dean. Mogden Lane, Isleworth runs towards it. The association with the nearby hamlet of Whitton probably occurred in mediaeval times.

Feld and Leah (‘-ley’): fields, clearings and woodland

The explanation for the place-name Feltham is a combination of the elements ham (village or settlement) and feld (an open plain) indicating the situation of the settlement. Feltham stands on the western edge of Hounslow’s gravelly heath. Over the centuries feld has changed its English meaning from open plain, to an agricultural open field and finally to a hedged or fenced enclosure on a farm.

‘Leah’ has had a range of meanings that have both changed over time and varied according to the geographical context of the place named. Few instances of this element are known to be earlier than the mid 8th century and ‘leah’s’ period of currency in place-naming lasted about 200 years.

At first, the word indicated forest and woodland, especially settlement occupying a glade or clearing in woodland. Latterly, ‘leah’ was used for settlement in pasture or meadowland. Although in other regions ‘leah’ names are a good indication of ancient woodland or of the recent clearance of woodland, ‘-ley’ names in South West Middlesex are more likely to be late-coined names that indicate meadow and pasture, after the connotation of woodland has been lost. Osterley, with its primary element recording the presence of a flock of ewes (eowstre + leah), confirms the interpretation: ‘pasture’. Although timber would have been a scarce resource in South West Middlesex, there is little evidence of remnant woodland being carefully husbanded in the district. And, in spite of the Norman designation of the Forest (or Warren) of Staines as a hunting preserve managed under forest laws, the absence of any ‘-ley’ place-names in that area suggests that the ‘forest’ was an open landscape – land on Hounslow Heath reserved for chasing deer and hunting rabbits – rather than being a wooded, or even partly wooded, area. Dawley is a ‘leah’ name. But it is unclear whether the dole or part-share referred to is in pastureland of long standing, or in recently cleared woodland.

A few local references to woodland in and around South West Middlesex include Pitshanger, near Ealing, where there was a wooded slope (hangra) overflown by small hawks (pyttel); and Norwood Green – a rare local instance of the element wudu, so common in other districts.

References to vegetation are a well-attested feature of topographical place-names. The names Hayes and Heston both record a landscape characterised by ‘hegges’ or bushy growth. Laleham is the hamm where withies (lael) grow. Could Twickenham be the twiggy-hamm, instead of being associated with a conjectured Anglo-Saxon named Twicca?

Habitative Place-Names

Burgh and bury, cote and ham, tun, wic and worth are all examples of habitative elements occurring in Anglo-Saxon place-names. These can tell us something of the function and of the socio-economic status of the settlement to which they have been applied. Although these elements have been applied to English communities at different times and their meanings have changed over time, they can still provide some insight into Anglo-Saxon society and the economy of early England.

Bury (Burgh, Borough) is the Old English term for a fortified place. Burghs were not always places fortified in Anglo-Saxon times. Defended sites, or settlements adjacent to defended sites associated with the ancient Britons and the Romans, have been named with a bury suffix by the Anglo-Saxons. King Alfred’s fortification of the Wessex boroughs as centres of regional defence and administration has strengthened the association of the word borough with modern county towns and other large, self-governing urban centres.

In the sense in which bury means a fortified residence the term has been applied to manor houses throughout the late Saxon and post-conquest eras.

The place-name Gunnersbury (first recorded in 1334) means Gunnhild’s manor or fortified dwelling. Its association with King Canute’s niece, Gunhilda, is legendary.

Sunbury (first recorded in 959AD) was Sunna’s burgh or stronghold. When the Domesday Book was compiled the manors of Shepperton, Staines and Sunbury belonged to St. Peter’s at Westminster, but the Sunbury place-name may recall an earlier lord of the manor. Eilert Ekwall’s suggestion that Sunbury’s name may link it to “the people or followers of Sonna” whose tribal name is to be found at Sonning and Sunninghill in Berkshire has now been discounted.

Cote means a cottage or shelter. This element has been applied to humble residential buildings, farmers’ barns and stock sheds and to tradesmen’s workshops. It is more commonly found in the Midlands than in eastern England, but Eastcote, between Pinner and Ruislip, is a West Middlesex example of cote used in a place-name to indicate a hamlet or dependent settlement. In 1780 a counterpart settlement known as Westcott stood on the other side of Ruislip. Royal Ascot in Berkshire was once a humble Eastcote (Estcota in 1177).

Halh meaning a hollow, a nook or a secluded place began life as a topographical place-name element. But it became more widely used in a habitative sense, to indicate an administrative association between smaller and larger estates or properties. Land projecting from, or detached from a larger manorial unit often has a place-name including the element halh, even though topographical justification for the use of the element may be lacking.

Northolt was Northala in 1086; and Southall was Suhaul in 1198. These are both halh names, although neither the existence of a nook in their landscape nor their relationship to a manor elsewhere has been established.

Ham is probably the earliest of the common habitative elements to be found in Old English place-names. It means a homestead, a safe dwelling-place and by extension, a village or a collection of dwellings. Ham is easily confused with another Old English word, hamm, meaning land within a river bend. The ham element in Fulham, Hampton, Laleham and Turham Green belongs to the topographical hamms and refers to land in the bend of a river, the Thames.

The habitative ham occurs widely but is most common in South East England and the Thames Valley. In the Domesday Book most place-names in ham are found to be manorial names and the element is less often found in the names of minor places. The mediaeval word “hamlet” was borrowed to indicate a minor settlement from the Old German “hamel” via the Old French “hameau”.

The best local example of ham as a habitative element is to be found in Feltham (first recorded in 969AD) meaning a village on open land.

Little is known about pagan Saxon temples. Archaeological and literary evidence is slight. But place-names can reveal their ancient location.

Hearg is one of the two Old English words that mean a heathen temple or shrine. Harrow on the Hill enters history as Gumeninga Hergae (the heathen temple of the people of Gumen) in 767AD. Hearg is thought to apply particularly to communal places of worship, which are often found on hilltops and in prominent positions. Wayside shrines are termed weoh (pronounced “way”).

“A Frenchman and an Englishman have four hides, they are proven men-at-arms”; records the Domesday Book, describing the Manor of Isleworth in 1086.

 An Anglo-Saxon manor was divided into two. The “inland” was the core property of the Lord of the Manor – the feudal demesne. Its labour force was an important asset of the estate and was tied to the property by obligatory services owed to the lord in return for a home, a modest allotment of land and the lord’s payment of all the tenant’s church dues and secular taxes.

The manor’s “outland” was more freely held. With the lord’s consent, its tenure was a saleable commodity. Obligations and services were proportionate to the size of each holding and the land was divided into hides and fractions of hides. Military service was the most important obligation attached to tenure, whether of the manor as a whole or of any part of it.

The Lord of the Manor had a duty to provide men equipped to fight and skilled in the use of arms. He often met this obligation by the allocation of substantial “knight’s tenements” to men-at-arms who were bound to answer his call, or to provide substitutes, when required. In peacetime they may have helped to maintain the training and readiness of the peasant militia or “fyrd”, for which each Hundred, or district, was expected to provide fighting men.

The Domesday Book records that, in Berkshire, hidated land was liable for the provision of soldiers at the rate of one for every four hides with four shillings for the payment of two months wages and their support besides.

Hide farms were discrete parcels of land, economically independent and with recognised boundaries. They had to produce a surplus to meet their military obligations. The later formation and dissolution of common fields has obscured their agricultural existence; but place-names in hyde can still be found near the boundaries of ancient parishes or manors, removed from and independent of the manor’s nucleated settlements.

The place-name North Hyde, beyond the village of Heston on the northern boundary of the Manor of Isleworth, is a remnant of the manor’s hidated “outland” settlement pattern.

Ingas: ‘the place of the people of…’

This Anglo-Saxon place-name element identifies a popular group or tribe and its territory. Local examples include Ealing (first recorded between 693AD and 704AD), ‘the place of the people of Gilla’; and Yeading (first recorded in 757AD), which is ‘the place of the people of Geddi’.

The ‘ingas’ names are amongst the earliest Old English place-names. But their distribution is no longer thought to represent the very first settlement of the Anglo-Saxons in Britain. Archaeology has disproved the hypothesis that the distributions of the earliest pagan Anglo-Saxon cemeteries and that of the ‘ingas’ place-names are coextensive. Today they are thought to be merely complementary and the ‘ingas’ place-names are believed to represent the colonising movements of a second, often British-born, generation of Anglo-Saxons beyond the zones of initial Saxon settlement. Some years must elapse before the name of a potentially mobile group of people becomes firmly attached to their place of settlement. So the ‘ingas’ place-names are more likely to have gained popular currency during the 6th century AD than during the 5th century AD.

During the 8th, 9th and early 10th centuries the suffix tun became the most common of the habitative place-name elements in use in Anglo-Saxon England. First used to indicate a fenced or enclosed homestead it replaced the older term worth. As the meaning of tun developed over time it came to include the sense of an inhabited or settled place and gradually evolved into the modern word town. Like worth, it is most often found linked to a personal name as in Harlington (Hygeredington or Hygred’s homestead/farm) and Sipson (Sibwineston or Sibwine’s homestead/farm).

But tun can also be found combined with topographical terms such as: Eton (ea-ton, the riverside farm), Heston (hegges-ton; the farm or unit of an estate in a bushy landscape) and Hampton (Hamm-ton; the farm or unit of an estate on land in the bend of a river).

Tun is also found combined with the names of crops, plants and trees and with expressions of geographical relationships between settlements such as Sutton and Norton.

By extension of its meaning “village” or “settlement”, tun acquired the meanings “manor”, “estate” and “unit of an estate”, with each of which economically distinct communities might be associated. The meaning “farm or unit of a larger estate” is an important sense in which the Anglo-Saxons used the word tun. Where tun is found combined with words identifying crops, products and livestock it may tell us something of the specialised forms of husbandry that were carried out on Anglo-Saxon farms in the 8th and 9th centuries.

Local examples include:

  • Acton (first recorded in 1181): the oak tree farm
  • Lampton, Heston (first recorded in 1376): the lamb farm
  • Shepperton (first recorded in 959AD): a sheep farm, perhaps fattening lambs for the table on its rich Thames-side pastures.
  • Worton, Isleworth (first recorded in 1274): the herb or vegetable farm.

It’s intriguing to think that the place-name Worton could well indicate the existence of an Anglo-Saxon market garden in an area where, a thousand years later, market gardening would dominate the landscape and play an important part in the regional economy.

On the evidence of local place-names, the importance of sheep rearing to the economy of South West Middlesex is also of interest. Osterley (eowestre, leah), “the sheepfold in the clearing or meadow”, is another ovine place-name.

There may be more to Acton than a habitative place-name element combined with a topographical reference to a landmark oak tree. Were Acton a name in general use for farms that had a large oak tree in their home paddocks then this place-name form would be very much more common than it actually is. Shropshire and the West Midlands can show a thin scatter of Actons and like names, but West London’s example is very much an isolated occurrence.

The sense in which tun is used as an indicator of specialist production suggests that this farm or unit of an estate was involved in the management of a local oak wood as a source of hardwood. Old Oak Common lies a mile or so to the north of Acton and its modern name is a corruption of the Old Holt, holt being the Anglo-Saxon term for a wood dominated by a single species of tree. Here, perhaps, is confirmation of the existence of a large oak wood near Acton in Saxon and early mediaeval times, a very valuable resource in an area as deficient in woodland as South West Middlesex must have been.

The place-name element wic also indicates economic specialisation occurring in particular locations. The Anglo-Saxons borrowed the Old English word wic from the Latin word vicus meaning row of houses, street or suburban district. In Anglo-Saxon the first meaning of wic was dwelling or collection of dwellings. Later its meaning evolved to include buildings used for specialised occupations or buildings used as stores and warehouses.  In this role the word became firmly attached to Anglo-Saxon dairy farming and its sub-specialisations such as cheese making. Less commonly, the term bere-wic (i.e. Berwick – barley farm) is found applying to a grange or an outlying unit of a manorial estate, with storehouses and a threshing floor.

Wyke Green near Osterley (first recorded in 1238) is the wic or dairy farm. Chiswick was first recorded as Ceswican in 1000AD – the farm specialising in cheese making. The place-name Keswick, in the Lake District, has the same origin and meaning.

 Worth is amongst the earliest place-name elements recorded in the Old English period. It is found in documents produced in the 7th century AD.

Its literal meaning is domestic enclosure or homestead and it is almost always found coupled to an Anglo-Saxon personal name, as in:

  • Gislheresuuyrth (first recorded in 695AD), meaning Gislhere’s or Gistel’s homestead, at ISLEWORTH.
  • Hermodesworde (first recorded in 1086), meaning Heremod’s homestead or HARMONDSWORTH.

A table of Anglo-Saxon place-name elements and their meanings

byden / bede A hollow or bed
beorg A barrow or artifical mound/ burial mound
burn /bourne A stream
bury / borough A fortified homestead or settlement / an administrative centre
cote A hamlet or small settlement
dene A valley
don A prominent hill with flat top affording a suitable site for a settlement
draeg A piece of land where a boat can be dragged ashore and manhandled around a shallow place or an obstacle to navigation
ea A river
eye / eg An island
eyot A small island
feld / field A plain, a commonly cultivated open field, an enclosed field bounded by fences, or hedges and ditches
font / funta A spring or fount / a fountain or drinking fountain
ford A firm, shallow river bed affording a crossing place for a track, path or road
halh A nook / a secluded place; a detached part of an estate
ham A settlement or village
hamm Land in the bend of a river
hangra A wooded slope
hegges Bushes / a bushy landscape
hlaw A barrow or artifical mound/ burial mound
hearg A pagan temple or place of worship
holt A wood with one dominant species of tree
hyde/ hide A measured init of land (around 120 acres in extent)
ingas A word expressing association
iggot (eyot or ait) A small island
leah A clearing in woodland made for pasture, a meadow
ofer A hill with a convex slope
ora A hill with a distinctive bank or slope
pyttel A small hawk or kestrel
ton / tun A farm or a unit of a complex estate, a settlement, a town
weoh / ‘way’ A (pagan) wayside shrine
wic / wick A vicus / a Roman civil settlement with shops and craft workshops; a place of specialised production
wielle A natural well or spring
worth An enclosure associated with a homestead
wood / wudu A wood