How The London Boroughs Got Their Names

boroughs

Fifty years ago today, the London Government Act 1963 received Royal Assent. It paved the way, two years later, for radical changes in London’s political boundaries. The 32 boroughs that we still know, love and pay our council tax to, were created. (The tiny City of London — also known as the Square Mile — holds different political status to the 32 boroughs, and carried on as normal after the Act.)

Many former boroughs (Finsbury and St Pancras, for example) disappeared overnight, though you can still see their names on old street signs around town. The new, bigger, amalgamated boroughs needed new names. In most cases, ancient appellations were chosen. So here’s our guide to the etymology of London’s boroughs. Find out which areas are named after sheep, chalk, crocuses…and a hill in Yorkshire.

Barking and Dagenham

Barking is an ancient, Anglo-Saxon phrase, first recorded as Berecingas. The name either derives from a local chieftan called Bereca or means “the settlement by the birch trees”. Dagenham is also ancient, first recorded as Dæccanhaam in 666 AD. ‘Haam’ means ‘home’ or ‘homestead’ and Dæcca was presumably a local land-owner or leader.

Barnet

The borough of Barnet contains plenty of Barnets — High Barnet, Chipping Barnet, Friern Barnet, New Barnet… All derive their names from the Anglo-Saxon word ‘bærnet’, which suggests the clearing of woodland by burning. It was first recorded as Barneto in 1070.

Bexley

Recorded in Domesday Book as Bix, and later as Bixle (a good name for a breakfast cereal, wethinks), ‘Bexley’ translates as pasture by the stream — presumably the River Cray, which still flows through the area.

Brent

The most ancient borough name of all. Brent predates the Anglo-Saxons and even the Romans, and comes from a Celtic word meaning ‘holy one’ or ‘high place’. A river of the same name still flows through the borough. It is one of only a handful of pre-Roman names still in use in the London area, along with Penge, Thames and London itself.

Bromley

Yet another Anglo-Saxon derivation. Bromley was first recorded in 862 AD as Bromleag, which means ‘a woodland clearing where broom grows’. Interestingly, the other Bromley (Bromley-by-Bow) is of different derivation, coming from a word meaning bramble field.

Camden

Both the borough and Camden Town are named after Charles Pratt, 1st Earl of Camden, who owned land here in the late 18th century. Camden Place was his seat in Kent, itself named after William Camden who lived in the property from 1609.

Croydon

The borough and its largest conurbation take their name from the Anglo-Saxon phrase croeas deanas, and later crogdene, which, contrary to Croydon’s current appearance, meant ‘valley of the crocuses’. The valley was no doubt a centre of crocus cultivation, yielding saffron.

Ealing

Ealing was first recorded as Gillingas around 700 AD. Gillas was another of these local chieftans, and the ‘ingas’ part denotes ‘the followers of’. The spelling has since flitted among Illing, Gilling and Ylling, before finally settling on Ealing.

Enfield

Two possibilities here. It could derive from the fields belonging to a chieftan called Ēana, or it could be named after the Anglo-Saxon for lamb, which was ēan. Either way, Enfield was first recorded in Domesday Book as a small settlement called Enefelde.

The Royal Borough of Greenwich

London’s newest Royal Borough also has Anglo Saxon origins, stemming from Grenewic, the green place on the bay (which it still is).

Hackney

The name is not recorded until the 12th century, but Hackney was undoubtedly settled much earlier, as evinced from the ‘tun’ of Dalston and Clapton and the ‘wic’ of Hackney Wick. A leading theory suggests origins with Haca’s ey, an ‘ey’ being an area of raised ground in marshland.

Hammersmith and Fulham

Hammersmith has disputed origins as a place name. Some sources suggest it derives from Hammoder’s Hythe (a safe haven belonging to Hammoder), others, perhaps more satisfyingly, suggest it’s simply a concatenation of ‘hammer’ and ‘smithy’, denoting an area important for metal working. Fulham is an area belonging to an Anglo-Saxon called Fulla, but rather than the usual ‘ham’ meaning homestead, this one was originally ‘hamm’, signifying a bend in the river.

Haringey

The borough name, as well as its conurbations of Harringay and Hornsey, derive from Haeringes-hege, the enclosure belonging to Saxon chief Haering.

Harrow

It’s thought that this name denotes a heathen shrine (hearg), built on Harrow Hill. Caroline Taggert (see sources) notes that its earliest recording is Gumeningae Hergae, a heathen shrine of the Gumeningas tribe.

Havering

Havering might now seem like a relative backwater borough to most Londoners, but it was once home to an important palace of Edward the Confessor. Its name is recorded in Domesday Book as Haueringas, for the followers of a man called something like Haefer.

Hillingdon

A ‘don’ usually denotes a hill in Anglo-Saxon place names, and Hillingdon is no different. It’s in Domesday Book as Hillendone, suggesting a hill belonging to a man called Hille, Hilla or Hilda — probably where Hillingdon Hill rises near Uxbridge.

Hounslow

This one’s not certain. It might derive from Honeslaw, meaning an area of land suitable for hunting, or it may indicate a hill claimed by a man called Hund or a tribe called Hundi.

Islington

More properly, it should be Islingdon, as (like Hillingdon and Wimbledon) the name denotes a hill (don), here formerly governed by a Mr Gisla. Old records call the place Giseldone (1005) and Gislandune (1062). The area was known as Isledon well into the 17th Century.

Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea

Kensington’s yet another place named after an otherwise forgotten Saxon chappie. This time, Mr Cynesige or Kenesigne. Chelsea’s a bit more interesting, with various ancient spellings along the lines of Chelchith, meaning the landing place or wharf for chalk. Chalk would have been used in fertiliser. 

Royal Borough of Kingston Upon Thames

Kingston was an ancient seat of kings. Recorded as Cyninges tun in 838, the name means King’s manor or estate. Several 10th century kings were crowned here, as still remembered in the area’s Coronation Stone, near the Kingston Guildhall.

Lambeth

Rather satisfyingly, the name means ‘landing place for lambs’, and it’s a shortened version of the earlier Lambehitha (hitha being a common ending for riverside landing places like Rotherhithe).

Lewisham

Leofshema is thought to be derived from the Jute name Leof or Leofsa, with the hema bit being a variant on ‘ham’ or dwelling.

Merton

The name is again Saxon and means either farm by the pool or Maera’s homestead. The former is perhaps most likely, as Merton stands on the banks of the Wandle and its associated flood plains.

Newham

One of the few borough names not to derive directly from ancient roots. Newham was formed in 1965 from East Ham and West Ham, the ‘new’ bit conjured up to declare that, yes, this political entity is new. The ‘ham’ part of the name indicates, in this case, low-laying land surrounded by marsh.

Redbridge

Quite simply, named for a red bridge which bestrode the River Roding from the 17th century, until it was knocked down for road improvement in 1922. Here’s the modern replacement.

Richmond upon Thames

Another relatively recent coinage (well, around 1500), Richmond took its name from the now-vanished Richmond Palace, built on the river by Henry VII. His former title was Earl of Richmond, relating to the town in Yorkshire. That place’s name comes from Old French for ‘strong hill’.

Southwark

This ancient part of London was settled by the Romans. Early records call it Suthriganaweorc or Suthringa geweorche, meaning ‘the defensive works of the men of the south’ (i.e. Surrey).

Sutton

Recorded as Sudtone in Domesday Book, the name translates roughly as ‘south farm’.

Tower Hamlets

Predictably, the name refers to the hamlets and villages closest to the Tower of London. Despite having the whiff of a modern coinage, the name has been used for centuries.

Waltham Forest

Waltham Forest is an ancient name for what we now call Epping Forest. Waltham meant ‘forest estate’. The borough contains Walthamstow, which was originally called Wilcumestowe (meaning welcome place), but gradually morphed into Walthamstowe.

Wandsworth

Wandsworth takes its name from the River Wandle, which remains one of the delights of the borough. The Wandle got its name from an Anglo Saxon called Waendel, who owned land round here.

City of Westminster

The name relates to the famous Abbey — ‘mynster’ being Old English for a church. The ‘West’ part simply denotes it as west of the ancient City, and its great church of St Paul. In Anglo Saxon and early Norman times, the area was known as Torneia or Thorney Island, for an islet of that character, upon which the abbey and Palace of Westminster are built.


Sources

See also: Our own attempt at redrawing the boroughs.

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  • http://londonist.com/ Dean Nicholas

    So really we should be pronouncing it ‘New Ham’ instead of ‘New Um’.

    • Joseph Gilbert

      When I rang up a library in Canning Town once the guy pronounced it New Ham.

  • Topp Cat

    What about Brockley ?

    • MattFromLondonist

      It’s not a borough. But it also has Anglo-Saxon origins…possibly meaning a place where badgers were seen, or a clearing belonging to someone called Broca.

      • Topp Cat

        Silly me.

        • londona729

          Lol Brockley is in the borough of Lewisham !

      • smiler_grogan

        And Broca Food Market (and Deli) is still providing its citizens with goods and services.

    • jamie

      shortned form of green vegetable, grown in abundance on this site.

  • Mark Rowland

    The City of London is effectively a London borough but exists by “prescriptive right”, (i.e. it’s always been there). First recognised by William the Conqueror (or William I as he is known in the City as he never “conquered” it as such) via William’s Writ and also recognised in the Magna Carta.

  • Carlos G. Spitz

    Shouldn’t “low-laying land” be “low-lying land”?

  • Theo Blackwell

    “Camden” got its name in the 1960s when the new borough was created out of 3 smaller ones – Holborn, Hampstead and St.Pancras).

    The then Clerk chose “Camden” after Camden Town, the geographical heart of the borough.

    Other names in consideration were Fleet Borough, after the river running from the Ponds to the Thames – apparently the Conservatives wanted something grander – the Royal Borough of Hampstead and Holborn – but this was rebuffed.

  • Jonathan Wadman

    I thought ‘Wandle’ was a back-formation from ‘Wandsworth’ – in other words, the river was named after the settlement. But perhaps not.

  • David Sankey

    In the strictest sense West Ham and east Ham meant the low lying marshy bit of the floodplain on a BEND in the river. The same derivation as for “enclosure”, See Adrian Room’s Penguin Dictionary of English Placenames 2003

  • Michael Jennings

    Oh, the origin of “Tower Hamlets” is much more interesting than that. The reference is not to hamlets near the Tower of London as much as it is to Hamlets *ruled* by the tower. Specifically, the area to the east of the Tower of London was from the sixteenth century under the jurisdiction of the Tower of London rather than being under the jurisdiction of the City of London or the County of Middlesex, and its administration and law enforcement was entirely separate from that of those two entities. You can even make the argument that the Tower (including the Hamlets) was in fact a county in its own right, given that it had its own Lord Lieutenant (an office normally also held simultaneously by the Constable of the Tower). This situation prevailed until the creation of the County of London in 1889.

    The modern Borough takes its name from the historic Tower Hamlets, although the modern Borough does not cover the entire area. The irony is that the Tower of London is now situated in the Borough of Tower Hamlets, so the historic situation is reversed: the Hamlets now rule the Tower.

  • edwardo

    what, no hackney? how could anyone miss our hackers clackers! a prince among boroughs old boy.

    • MattFromLondonist

      It’s there. Under ‘Hackney’.

  • Gerard

    ‘Redbridge’ was chosen as the new borough’s name for symbolic reasons as the historic Red Bridge over the river Roding physically joined the two previous boroughs of Ilford and Wanstead & Woodford. Both areas had a strong sense of civic pride so this ensured continuing harmony between the two.

  • blah

    what about tower hamlets

  • Maggie Coles

    Newham incorporates more than East and West ham – you missed out Stratford, Canning Town, Plaistow, Silvertowm, Manor Park, Forest gate, Beckton (and probably a few I’ve missed) The origins of these names are very interesting too, you know!

    • Idamide

      Yes – and North Woolwich, which before 1965 was actually part of Kent

  • Jason Rushton

    So when are the Post Office, going to recognise that the outer Boroughs are a part of London & not part’s of the ad-joining counties??

    • Tim

      It comes from the sorting offices that the post is routed to on its way to its destination, so sorting all that out and aligning the codes with the border of the boroughs would require a complete overhaul of the sorting office structure – and a lot more work for the central offices. This is why we don’t have NE and S postcodes: their offices closed and the work was split among their neighbours.

  • Leo

    How about ‘Cockfosters’? Can you explain that?

    • smiler_grogan

      Woman on the Piccadilly line to another passenger. ‘Excuse me is this Cockfosters?’ ‘No it’s mine’

  • Jackie Farrell

    What about Marylebone?

    • Richard Harris

      The older borough, now forming part of Westminster and Camden was called St Marylebone, so presumably that’s due to the church of St Mary-le-bone in the area, which possibly translates as “St Mary the Good” if it’s a corruption of a French name. But I’m not sure, Wikipedia’s probably your best bet.

  • Andrew Black

    So which borough is named after sheep.

    • Earth B Forworth

      Lambeth right?

  • JFJ

    What is Barbican mean?

    • Jon Mark Deane

      It’s a defensive castle-like structure on the city wall.

  • misswhitemoth

    Lovely and so well written!

  • rogette

    These are some legends we learned:
    Twickenham- village built up “on the road twixt Wick and Ham”.
    Teddington- “tide’s end town”, which it is for the Thames.