Exploring London’s place names

Published (updated: ) in notes.

I’ve been having lots of fun flicking through the Oxford Dictionary of London Place Namesby AD Mills. There’s some wonderful things about it that I wanted to note.

The intricate links between place names and people names

Places are named after people; and vast numbers of personal names are a reflection of the place they came from. Many of London’s place names are derived from the people who ruled over, or owned, or influenced that land as much as a thousand years ago. What a legacy!

So, Addiscombe and Addington near Croydon were both named after some person called Aeddi. Hackney may have been named after Hacca. Ponders End, where my father grew up, was land associated with the Ponder family. Sadler’s Wells was where one Thomas Sadler found a spring in his garden. Duppas Hill, again in Croydon, was named after a family called Dubber or Double. Sydenham was once the “homestead or enclosure of a man named Cippa”. Tulse Hill, named after a Tulse family.

Amusing and fascinating stories behind London place names

Isle of Dogs and Canary Wharf turn out to have a possible shared origin. The wharf was named, relatively recently in 1937, after a fruit importing company that traded with the Canary Islands. Oddly, the name Gran Canaria for the largest of the Islands is said to be derived from the Latin Canaria insula, which means, um, “Isle of Dogs”. What’s most interesting is that no-one really knows why the Isle of Dogs is so named; it might have been because wild dogs used to roam there, or because Royal hunting dogs were kenneled there. So the connection with Gran Canaria makes a more compelling tale.

Dulwich was named after “a marshy meadow where dill grows”. 

Anerley, where I lived a few years ago, was so named because the landowner at the time of the rail network construction was a Scot called William Sanderson; he spoke with a thick Scottish accent, and allowed the rail company to build a station on his land; it was to be the “only” one, though; now try saying “only” with a broad Highland twang … it sounds like “anerley”…

Names whose origins are surprisingly obvious

  • Shooter’s Hill – “hill of the shooter/archer”
  • Plumstead – “place where plum trees grow”
  • Smithfield – “smooth or level field”
  • Deptford – “deep ford” (the ‘t’ was added much later)

Some other favourites from the book

  • Tottenham Court Road – leading to the ancient manor of Thottanheale, or “nook of land belonging to a man called Totta”
  • Wembley – “woodland clearing of a man called Wemba”
  • Wormwood Scrubs – “snake-infested thicket of stunted trees”
  • Aldgate – originally the Roman City’s East Gate, it was known as “ale gate” presumably because travellers from Essex often stopped for a beer on their arrival; the ‘d’ is relatively new
  • Seven Sisters – seven elm trees, legendarily planted by seven sisters before setting off on their travels
  • Soho – named after a hunter’s cry; this area was once wooded and used as a hunting ground by the local nobility
  • Burnt Oak – named after a dead oak tree used as a boundary marker