Continuing our series on London etymologies. Below, we cover over 30 of the capital's larger parks, commons and open spaces. But we have a dilemma. London contains so many parks that we have to arbitrarily draw the line somewhere. The list could be much, much longer. We've limited it to large or famous examples, and also turned a blind eye to much of Outer London. If your favourite park is missing, perhaps look into its history yourself and share your findings in the comments.
The Royal Parks
This former agricultural land was acquired by Henry VIII from Cardinal Wolsey at the same time as nearby Hampton Court Palace. Its etymology is uncertain but, like Bushey in Hertfordshire, may come from the Old English word bysce, meaning wooded.
Green Park isn't entirely green. In spring, banks of daffodils can be enjoyed throughout its 40 acres. Unlike other Royal Parks, however, it lacks formal flower beds. An old myth attributes this dearth to Catherine, wife of Charles II. She supposedly spotted the merry monarch plucking flowers in the park for his mistress. In wroth, she ordered that all flowers should be removed from the park, and it has remained barren ever since. Nice story, but the truth is probably more prosaic. The open space was originally called Upper St James's Park, but changed to The Green Park in 1746. The name probably reflected its nature at the time — open meadow with few trees.
This slopesome treasure traces its name back to Anglo-Saxon times. It is first recorded as Gronewic in 908 AD, meaning a 'green harbour' or trading place. Some argue that the 'wic' ending could also imply a harbour for cattle. Either way, it's definitely always been green.
Henry VIII acquired the land as his own private plaything following the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1536. Previously, it was under the control of the canons of Westminster Abbey, and known as the Manor of Hyde. This in turn is thought to be a corruption of the Manor of 'Eye' or 'Eia', an Anglo-Saxon term meaning island, and from a time when the lands around the nearby River Westbourne were marshy. Ebury Street and Square have the same etymology.
Kensington is another Anglo-Saxon place name. It's mentioned in the 1086 Domesday book as Chenesitone, and indicates land owned by somebody called Kenesigne.
The Regent's Park
This and Regent Street both commemorate the Prince Regent, later George IV, on whose watch they were first laid out. Previously, it had been known as Marylebone Park. Like just about any open ground in central London, it was once used by Henry VIII for blood sports. It later slipped into agricultural use. The adjacent Primrose Hill has an etymology too obvious to detail.
A relatively recent coinage (well, around 1500), the park 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'.
St James's Park
The park, somewhat predictably, takes its name from the adjacent St James's Palace, now almost 500 years old. Why was the palace linked to St James? It was built on the site of a medieval leper hospital dedicated to St James the Less. Why did the hospital choose that saint? The answer is lost in the mists of time.
Other large parks
The park and its famous 'palace' were named after Alexandra of Denmark, wife of the future Edward VII and great-grandmother of the present Queen.
The place name Battersea is ancient, written in Anglo-Saxon times as Badrices īeg it probably denotes an island belonging to a chap called Badric, or some similar name.
Beckenham Place Park
The area appears in Domesday Book as Becceham, and probably refers to the homestead of Beohha.
This name is first recorded in the 12th century as Blachehedfeld, indicating a heath of dark colour. Blackheath's evocative name also conjures images of death, and folkloric suggestions link the name to plague burials.
The south London gem is named after nearby Brockwell Hall, which once controlled the land. Where its name came from is less certain, but we can guess at associations with badgers and water. Brockwell is perhaps an old name for a tributary of the River Effra, rising in the park.
An unusual park, in that the land was once built upon. Heavy bombing in the Second World War reduced the area to rubble, and it was later cleared to form Burgess Park. The space was named in 1973 after Councillor Jessie Burgess, the first female Mayor of Camberwell.
From the Old English place name Cloppaham, thought to mean a home on a stubby hill.
Crystal Palace Park
Takes its name from the gargantuan Crystal Palace, which moved here from Hyde Park following the Great Exhibition of 1851. The park was hewn from woodlands, and the grounds of a mansion house known as Penge Place.
London's last large swathe of forest has Anglo Saxon name origins. Recorded in Domesday Book as Eppinges, it comes from Old English meaning 'the people of the raised ground'.
A confusing name, since Finsbury Park is nowhere near the area of Finsbury (roughly, Clerkenwell through to Old Street roundabout). Its creation was, however, provoked by the inhabitants of Finsbury, who petitioned parliament for more open space in 1841. The name Finsbury, referring to the more central locality, is first recorded in 1231 as Vinisbir. This probably stems from a burgh, or manor, belonging to someone called Fin.
Some debate surrounds the origins of this name. It appears to come from a Scandinavian female name, perhaps Gunnhild's burh (the manor of Gunnhild). Whether it was home to Gunhilda, the daughter of 11th century celebs Emma of Normandy and Canute, remains speculative.
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.
Hampstead is, quite simply, Old English for 'homestead'. The heath was once owned by Westminster Abbey, but is now administered by the City of London.
Kew is a curious place name. It comes from the same Old French root as quay, and as such denotes a landing place on the Thames. Its earliest occurrence, in 1327, is Cayho — the 'ho' part indicating a spur of land. It's fun to imagine the process by which Cayho gradually came to be pronounced 'Kew'.
Once known as Michelham, and inhabited since pre-Roman times, the area's name is thought to mean 'big settlement' or 'great dwelling'.
Peckham Rye Park
Peckham is an Anglo-Saxon name implying a village (ham) on the River Peck. Rye, or ree, is an old term for a watercourse. One can still paddle in the River Peck, which flows through Peckham Rye Park before entering the sewer system.
Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park
You can probably work this one out.
The park is some distance from the area traditionally known as Southwark. The name is first recorded as Suthriganawoerc, meaning something like the fort of the men of Surrey, or southern fort.
Named as Totinge as far back as the 7th century, it means the dwelling place of Tota and his people.
Named, of course, after Queen Victoria, who occupied the throne during the park's creation in the 1840s. Before this, the land was partly known as Bonner Fields, after Bishop Bonner, former lord of the Manor of Stepney.
At some point in the Middle Ages, a man called Waendel set up home in south-west London. The area had become Wandesorde (meaning enclosure of Waendel) by the time of Domesday Book, settling down to Wandsworth in later centuries. The River Wandle also took his name. As did Wandle beer. We would be content to leave such a legacy.
Two explanations have been offered for this name. The most interesting says that the 'wan' part is from the Old English word 'waen', meaning wagon, or the place where wagons crossed a stream. 'Stead', meanwhile, indicates a holy place. So we have 'where wagons cross a stream next to a holy place'. The more snorey version simply has it as 'settlement on a small hill'.
The suffix 'don' usually denotes a hill. Wimbledon occupies quite a large one. The name is first recorded as Wunemannedunne in 950 AD, indicating a hill owned by a guy called Winebeald, or something similar. Nearby Putney Heath is also Anglo Saxon. Its neighbouring settlement was the landing place of a Saxon called Putten.
Woolwich is yet another Anglo-Saxon place name, thought to mean the trading place for wool.
This peculiar west London place name was formerly known as Wormholt Scrubs. 'Scrubs' denotes scrappy semi-wooded land. Worm comes from 'wyrm', the olden-times name for a snake, while 'holt' is another term for wood. So the land was once a snake-infested woodland.
- How London’s rivers got their names
- How London's bridges got their names
- How London’s boroughs got their names
- How London’s odd road junctions got their names
- How London's terminal stations got their names
- How London's airports got their names
- How London's football teams got their names
All images by the author.