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Down memory lane: Hidden meaning of what's in a name

Staffordshire | | Published:

If we are nameless then who are we? Without our names we have no individuality, no distinct identity.

At best we become an indistinguishable part of a huge and monolithic gathering such as the Anglo Saxons or Victorians, the peasantry or the working class; at worst we are lost from history and become as nothing.

The desire to be known and remembered for who we are as separate entities with a unique character is a powerful human emotion. That is why our ancestors, no matter how poor, strove to avoid the indignity of a pauper's funeral after their death.

They feared to be laid into a mass grave with no mark above to call out who they were; they yearned at the least for a little plot with some memorial, no matter how small, to let the world know that they had once been.

That longing to be known and remembered reaches out from those gone to those living and to those yet to come. In so doing it bonds the past, the present and the future and provides a powerful sense of continuity in a rapidly changing society.

It is a need that motivates family historians to seek out the names of their ancestors as far back as possible and to find out whatever they can about them. In that way our forebears cease to have just existed; instead they continue to have a living presence.

Just as family historians enthusiastically search for their kith and kin, so too do local historians keenly look for the names of the earliest people to have lived in their locality.

In that search, our place names are vital for they call out to us to hark at what they are telling us, to notice those who gave them their names, and to understand their meanings.

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If we do but open our ears we can just catch hold of the men and some women who are kept alive in the names of many of our villages, towns and cities; and we can strain to hear how they described the features of the land in which they lived.

Spoken and written countless times a day they may be, but yet how rarely is the significance of our place names appreciated. They are indeed our signposts to the past and like all good markers, although they cannot take us on our journey, they can show us where to go. If we truly wish to understand who we are, and whence we come, then it is on the path of place names that we must tread.

Some of them in the Black Country and in the adjoining districts reach deep into the beginnings of Anglo-Saxon England, when bands of Angles move up the River Trent and thence its tributaries like the Tame – settling and taking over the land from the British.

They included extended family units who took their name from their founder or earliest remembered ancestor.

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Among them was Beorma whose 'ingas', people, joined him in setting up a 'ham', an estate or homestead. This became known as Birmingham. Another such kinship leader may have been Esne.

He and his people, the Esningas, set up or else took over from the Welsh, a 'tun, a farmstead or manor. This was recorded in a document from 996 as Esingetun. It has changed but slightly to become Essington. Similarly Pattingham brings to mind the estate or homestead of the people of Patta. From the early 600s, the Esningas, Beormingas and larger tribal groups were brought under the sway of the Kingdom of Mercia.

By then, those Welsh who remained had intermarried with the newcomers and abandoned their language. Most of their place names were replaced by those in Old English and have forever disappeared. These were added to with new settlements which had Old English names from the beginning.

Then there were those places which may once have been called after a feature in the landscape but which were renamed after a man who was given overlordship of a manor.

Darlaston and Tipton fall into this latter category. The 'tun' element means a manor and experts have placed its common use to the period between 750 and 950. Thus Darlaston signifies the manor of Deorlaf. The second earliest recording of it in 1262 spelled it as Derlaveston, although by 1316 its modern form had emerged when it was given as Derlaston. As for Tipton, it was first noted in the Domesday Book of 1086 and was put down as Tibintone, meaning the estate of Tibba.

Willenhall is mentioned much earlier and it is one of the earliest Black Country place names cited in a document. In 732 it was given as Willenhalch and as such was the 'halh, small valley, of Willa. Sedgley and Dudley are two other places that remember a person. Both signify a 'leah' or ley, a clearing – the one of someone called of Secg and the other of a fellow named Dudda.

Both places are among a noticeable number to the west of Birmingham which have this element 'leah' and which suggest that there was a growth of settlements through clearings in a woodland environment from about 750 to 950. They include Bradley, which meant the 'braden leah' board clearing; Rowley, which was 'the ruh', rough clearing; Horsley Heath, which had horses in it; Bentley, which had bent grass; and Langley. This means the 'lang' clearing and it would have emerged when the local folk said lang instead of long, as they do still in the lowlands of Scotland and parts of the north east of England.

There are also several names which may be connected to a man. Amblecote means either the 'cot', cottage, of the 'aemel', caterpillar, or else the cottage of someone called Aemela. Bloxwich possibly recalls the 'wic', farm, of Blocca.

It is likely that Cradley means the clearing of Cradda or Cradel, or perhaps the clearing where cradles were got for the making of hurdle fencing. Cradley Heath is the heathland named after Cradley. Other place names tell us of the landscape of the West Midlands a thousand years and more ago. When the Angles took over the region from the Welsh, they looked with fresh and open eyes upon the physical features that they saw and named them accordingly.

At Caldmore the incomers experienced a cold marsh, while at Shelfield they spotted a 'scelf', a ledge or plateau on a hill. Shelfield does indeed stand on a plateau with slopes on all sides and it was originally given as Schelfull in documents from the Later Middle Ages.

Elsewhere in what is now the Black Country, there are a marked number of place names ending in 'al' or 'all', from the Anglo Saxon word 'halh'. This had different meanings but in the West Midlands it was most used to describe a shallow valley. Today it is often difficult or indeed impossible to make out such a nook, because urbanisation and development have too often destroyed or obscured the original lay of the land.

However, the valley associated with Walsall is still visible. Although its parish church, St Matthew's, lies upon a limestone hill in the centre of the modern town, the ground falls away on all sides and there is a noticeable dip in the Bridge Street area, where the Walsall Brook flowed. The borough of Walsall boasts other place names including halh: Pelsall, Peol's nook; Rushall, the nook with rushes in it; and Blakenall, which may mean Blaca's nook or else the settlement at the black nook. Further south is Halesowen, which for many years was simply Hales – the nooks. Certainly, coming down Mucklow Hill and with the Clent Hills before you, it is obvious that Halesowen does lie in a pronounced dip.

Gornall, both Upper and Lower, may have 'halh' in their names but their meaning is difficult to fathom out. Some place-name experts feel it denotes the 'cweorn-halh', the water mill. However, as David Horovitz makes plain in his outstanding work on The Place-Names of Staffordshire, neither of the Gornals is in a shallow valley, and Upper Gornal is on high ground.

However, 'cweorn' could also mean a place where mill stones were got and in 1801 it was stated that excellent grind stones were dug at Cotwall End nearby. Cotwall itself signifies the 'cot', cottage, by the 'waelle', spring.

Ettingshall is definitely a 'halh, and is either the small valley of a man called Etta or else is the 'etting', grazing place. It belonged to Bilston, which was first written as Bilsetnatun.

This spelling provides us with the full meaning of the name. The old belief was that it meant the 'tun', the estate, of Bill's folk.

In fact, it indicates the settlement of the 'saete', folk, of the 'bile', meaning the sharp ridge or pointed hill. There is a possibility, however, that the Bil part may come instead from 'bill', meaning a sword or a physical feature that was sword-shaped.

The name Warley is not so easily explained. Some experts feel that it is the clearing associated with a stream called Worf; others assert that it is derived from either the Anglo Saxon word weofeslege or else weorfalege, both of which would indicate a clearing for cattle.

Wordsley is another place that pulls us inexorably both into the nooks and crannies of English history and into the peculiarities of our place names. It is a clearing that could be derived from the Anglo-Saxon word wulfweardes, meaning wolf guard.

For centuries Wordsley was part of the large parish of Kingswinford. Originally Swinford, the ford of the swine across the River Stour, it later gained the prefix King when it became a royal manor. Nearby Oldswinford belonged to Amblecote and was named Old to distinguish it from Kinsgwinford. A bridge later replaced the ford for crossing the Stour, hence the name Stourbridge.

The woodland setting of much of the Black Country is emphasised by clearings associated with trees. Brierley Hill was the thorny clearing on the hill – thorny because of the briars and brambles thereabouts.

At West Bromwich the Anglo-Saxons saw that broom trees were plentiful and placed a 'wic', a farm, amid them. Interestingly, many older people still refer to it as Bromwich or Bramwich and it was first given as just Bromwic in 1086 – not being recorded as Westbromwich until 1322.

Another farm was placed amid the alders – hence Aldridge. This is the correct meaning as indicated by the oldest spelling Alrewic.

It is not the ridge of alders as it may seem. As for Woodsetton, this was either the woodland 'seten', plantation, or else the animal fold in the woodland, while Coseley was the clearing from which 'col', charcoal, was obtained.

Just as Aldridge can appear to mean something it is not, so too can Great Bridge. There is a bridge there across the Tame that connects Tipton and West Bromwich but the Great part of the name does not mean big.

It comes from the Old English word 'greot' meaning a gravelly place. Place names such as this are not only fascinating but also they are important clues to who we are and whence we come.

By Carl Chinn

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