By Dr. Margaret Gelling, OBE, DLitt, FBA
TLHS Home Page

Patrons of the society

TLHS publications

Meetings and events

People and places of interest in Thurrock


Sports and leisure

Thurrock Church Brasses

[Note: This article is reproduced from Panorama 19, the Journal of the Thurrock Local History Society published in 1975. It is reproduced here by the kind permission of Dr. Gelling who tells us that she uses the information contained in this article regularly in her lectures.]

English place-name studies are undergoing a period of rapid development at the moment, and new theories are being advanced concerning the types of name which may denote the earliest Anglo-Saxon settlements. New attempts are being made to correlate place-name evidence with that of archaeology and it is clearly desirable to re-examine the place-names of the Mucking area in the light of the discovery of one of the largest and earliest Saxon settlements so far known. The archaeological evidence and the chronological hypotheses current among toponymists have both altered drastically since the publication of P.H. Reaney's volume The Place-Names of Essex in 1935.

An attempt will be made here to look at the names of south central Essex in the light of current thinking about place-name chronology, and to compare the evidence for this area with that for northwest Berkshire. The Thames and Ock valleys are relevant for two reasons: first, there is archaeological evidence there, as at Mucking, for a Saxon presence before the end of the 4th century and secondly, the place-names of the area have recently been examined from this point of view in the Introduction to The Place-names of Berkshire, now in process of publication.

The chronology of English place-names presents formidable difficulties, as on purely linguistic grounds most of the great mass of names in the Old English language could have been coined at any time between the first coming of the Anglo-Saxons to this country and the years immediately following the Norman Conquest. In the early years of scientific place-name study a need was felt to pick out distinctive categories of names which could be used as evidence for the earliest English settlements in Britain. The hypotheses then adopted hardened into dogma, and were virtually unchallenged until comparatively recent times. About 1960, however a number of specialists began to feel dissatisfied with the assumptions of the preceding generation of toponymists about the nature of the 'earliest' English place-names. These were considered to be:

1. Names in which the suffixes -ingas and - ingaham were added to a man's name, giving place-names like Reading, Hastings, Gillingham, Wokingham. These compounds, which mean 'the followers of Read (or Haesta)' and 'the homestead of the followers of Gylla (or Wocca)’ were supposed to represent in the case of the -ingas names the first land-takings of bands of immigrant Anglo-Saxons, in the case of the -ingaham names the immediate second stage of the settlement. This hypothesis, which began to be questioned in the early 1960's, was examined in detail by J. McN. Dodgson in 1966 (‘The Significance of the Distribution of the English Place-Name in -ingas , -inga- in South-east England ‘, Medieval Archaeology X, pp.1-29) , and has now been abandoned by specialists.

2. Names which refer to the sites of Pagan religious worship or to Germanic gods. This category has been re-examined (M. Gelling, Further Thoughts on Pagan Place-Names in Otium et Negotium: Studies in Onomatology and Library Science presented to Olof von Feilitzen, ed. F. Sandgren, Stockholm 1973, pp.109-28) and found to need drastic pruning. It is now suggested that the distribution pattern indicates a date of coinage near the end of the pagan period, and that places with this type of name are those where the pagan religion lingered longest, rather than those where it was earliest or most strongly established.

3. Names containing personal names or words which there is evidence for considering 'archaic’, i.e, only current in the Old English language during the earliest years of the Anglo-Saxon presence in this country. For instance, the use of a small number of archaic words was considered in the Introduction to The Place-Names of Cambridgeshire (English Place-Name Society XIX, p. xviii) to compensate for the scarcity of –ingas, -ingaham names in the County, and some surprisingly concrete assertions were made on the basis of supposed lines of place-names containing related archaic personal names: in The Place-Names of Buckinghamshire (EPNS 11, pp xiv-xv) it was suggested that the occurrence of Hygered in Harlington, Middlesex, and Hycga in Hitcham, Hedgerley and Hughenden in South Buckinghamshire showed that there was an original connection between the two regions, and that "the southern slopes of the Chilterns were colonised from the early settlements on the Thames bank of which Hitcham, OE Hycganham is one". As regards the argument from 'archaic' words, allowance should probably be made for the use of a more conservative vocabulary in the countryside than in the centres from which our written records come. Every county of which a detailed place-name survey is made produces additions to the known vocabulary of Old English, and it would be useful to have a fresh survey of this aspect of place-name studies; but it is doubtful whether such rare words need indicate a very early date for the place-names in which they occur, unless there are enough instances to give a significant distribution pattern. As regards the argument from personal names, this is only valid if the personal names are assumed to be those of very early settlers, so that Hygered and Hycga are the founding fathers of the villages of Harlington and Hitcham, or at least the Saxon leaders who took them from the British. The difficult problem of the significance of the personal names which are the first elements of a great number of English compound place-names is discussed in detail in the Introduction to The Place-Names of Berkshire (EPNS Ll, 1975). It is suggested there that the possibility of all or most of such personal names being those of manorial overlords, that is king's thegns or their dependent womenfolk (some of whom can be shown to have lived as late as the 10th and 11th centuries) is sufficiently strong to render it unwise to use the personal names as evidence for the first coming of English-speaking people to a region.

Next page Next page

Return to top