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The History in English Place and Street Names

Updated on August 18, 2018

"Rye, East Sussex" by Matt Banks


Place Names- Signposts To History

Some people, especially children, think that history is simply dates, battles, kings and queens, but history is far more than that. It is all around us, in our local areas, in the buildings, the businesses, shops and streets where we live. Street, district, town, city and area names, especially the unofficial names that local people use, can tell much about the history of the country and much about the history of the places where we live and work.

A Place Name Can Reveal A Hidden Story

Bexhill on Sea, in Sussex, UK, for example, the name Bexhill comes from Old English, byxe meaning a box tree or thicket, so Bexhill means a box tree or thicket on a hill. The modern town gives no indication of its rural beginnings. Epsom, in Surrey, was originally Ebbes Homestead, the old English hamm meant a cultivated land hemmed in by water or marsh. Epsom today is a built up and very busy dormitory suburb of London, would have thought that it was once a homestead or farm?

Tracing The History Of English Settlements

One can easily trace the history of any English settlement through its name, for example the suffix or prefix cester chester, port, street in the name of a city, town or village indicate that they were Roman settlements. The prefixes and suffixes Aber, baille, ben, cair, pen and tre, indicate older Celtic origins. Tre and Pen are particularly prevalent in Cornish place names such as Penrhyn, and Tregaron. Ham, ford, cot, ton, and hurst indicate Anglo Saxon settlements. By, ey, and with indicate Viking settlements. French names including suffixes and prefixes such as beau and mont indicate Norman settlements.

Street Names And History

The names of streets too can give clues to their history. Roads called Shambles are often the area of the town where butchers' shops once grouped together. Many town street names derive from the trades which were carried out in them in Medieval times. Other street names may derive from their use. Poultry lane may have been where the poultry market originally stood, or where the poulterers’ shops were located in the town or it may have been the lane that farmers drove their birds to market for hundreds of years. There are many streets called Cockpit Lane and this indicates that an arena for cockfighting, a popular interest in the past, now fortunately illegal throughout the United Kingdom, once stood there

Aldgate in London was simply the oldest city gate. The Strand may seem strange, until you realize that the old word for a beach was strand. Marble Arch is self-explanatory. Some London streets derive their names from the people who lived there such as Albemarle Street. Road names in other places also indicate their history, Gander Green Lane, in Cheam Surrey, derives its name from the fact that it was once a green lane or path along which geese were driven to market in London, very likely Smithfield.

Changing Place Names Losing History

Sometimes residents ask for street names to be changed because they perceive the name to be rude or because they do not like it. Residents in Bladder Lane asked for their street name to be changed to Boniface Lane, a perfectly reasonable request you might think. until you realise that the street was originally called after the bladderwort plant, not a bladder. Brewery Lane was changed to University Close after the college on the street complained to the council. However, changing street names risks losing their character and history and breaks our links with the past and our own roots and our sense of belonging.

"Man Seeking A Job With Street Map" by ddpavumba


© 2014 Mercia Collins


Submit a Comment
  • Mercia Collins profile imageAUTHOR

    Mercia Collins 

    5 years ago from United Kingdom

    Place names are intriguing, and tell so much about the history of a place and its people. Thank-you for visiting, taking the time to comment, and for your kind words.

  • annart profile image

    Ann Carr 

    5 years ago from SW England

    I love looking at place names. I was brought up in Sussex in a place called Hurstpierpoint. The local landed gentry in times gone by were called the Pierpoints and their land encompassed a wood or 'Hurst'

    I always make a point of delving into the history of places I live.

    Great hub! Ann


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