The origin and meaning of Essex Place Names was the subject given by Paul Mardon, Publicity Officer of the Essex Place Names Project, to the High Country History Group recently. The Project is said to be unique to the county and began in 1995 with volunteers recording towns, parishes, villages and moors; farms, houses, buildings and roads; and, fields, rivers, streams, woods and hills. Its coordinator is Dr James Kemble.
Volunteers transcribe names on the Tithe Maps of the 1830s and 1840s; estate maps and manor court rolls. They scour sales and auction catalogues, leases and rental records. To date 325 parishes in Essex have been completed with the results published on an online database linked to the Essex Society for Archaeology and Essex, and hosted by the University of Essex.
Paul Mardon said that most of our place names date before 1500, with many evolving over time often with a variety of spellings.
Rivers such as the Lea and Thames are early British names. The River Roding flows through the centre of the county past the Roding villages and on through Ilford – it was originally called the River Il. The Romans are renowned for their straight roads and fortified places.
The Anglo-Saxons have attached names to many places in northern Europe: ‘Walden’, as in Saffron Walden, is the place of the Britons.
There is a Viking influence in north east Essex where Danelaw was prevalent.
The Normans and Anglo-Normans gave names to places such as Pleshey – “a living hedge” – where old English words have evolved into Middle English.
Most of our modern place names are an amalgamation of periods: the Tolleshunt villages near Maldon is derived from ‘toll’ meaning chieftain and ‘funta’, meaning spring.
Suffixes for place names such as ‘ham’ and ‘ton’ have an original meaning of a farm or homestead; ‘ing’ or ‘ingas’ means territory; ‘sted’ means place; ‘wic’ means a dairy farm. In the landscape, ‘dun’ or ‘don’ means a flat topped upland; ‘hyrst’ is a wooded hill; ‘naess’ is a promontory; and ‘eg’ or ‘ieg’ is an island. There are many more.
Field names form an important part of the research of the Essex Place Names Project. Field names are given by size, such as ‘twenty acre marsh’ and ‘hoppit’ being a very Essex name for a small field. Some denote ownership such as ‘Browns Field’ or ‘Blacksmith Field’ while others are named according to their natural features, ‘Pond Field’ or ‘Oak Field’ are examples. There are a number of fields named according to their shape: ‘Leg of Mutton Field’ or ‘Shoulder of Mutton Field’. In nearby Navestock there is one called ‘Swans Neck Field’. Then there are others which tell how productive a field might be: ‘Great Gains’, ‘Stoney Field’. Finally a category shows how the field might have been ploughed: ‘Rainbow Field’, or ‘Gridiron Field’ in Great Wakering. ‘Botany Bay Field’ might be the furthest away field on a farm: Botany Bay was the place to where convicts were transported.
To find out more about place names and their origin, Paul Marsden recommends the following books:
Ekwall, Eilert. The Concise Dictionary of English Place-names. 4th edition (Oxford, 1960)
Reaney, P.H. The Place-Names of Essex, EPNS 12 (Cambridge, 1935)
Kemble, James. Essex Place-Names. Places, Streets and People. (Historical Publications, 2007)
The Essex Places Names Project database can be consulted by following this link: http://www.essex.ac.uk/history/esah/essexplacenames/index.asp