We've all argued about them. Apostrophes. Are you obsessive about possessives? Do you want to deploy your red marker pen every time you see Kings Cross? We thought it was high time for a definitive list of when to use an apostrophe in London place names.
Earl's Court: Confusion reigns. The tube station always has an apostrophe. The A-Z uses one, including Earl's Court Road and Earl's Court Gardens. Street signs for these roads, however, lack an apostrophe. Wikipedia is woefully inconsistent. The now-closed exhibition centre lacks the mark. If you need a rule, use an apostrophe for the tube station and area name, but not for the streets and exhibition centre. The area was once owned by the earls of Oxford, so an apostrophe is historically justified... though perhaps it should be Earls' as it has belonged to multiple Earls. We're not off to a very certain start, are we?
King's Cross: Like Earl's Court, the apostrophe has the weight of history behind it; the place name comes from a 'cross' or monument to King George IV. Most official bodies now include the apostrophe (except National Rail for some reason), but it has wandered in and out of favour across the decades. We looked at this one in more detail a few years back.
King's Road: Another place of fuzzy punctuation. The A-Z hedges its bets by using an apostrophe on the eastern stretch of the road, while dropping it for the less fashionable western end. We have no idea why. Street signs also vary, but are not in agreement with the A-Z's whims. The route was for centuries a private royal road, so the apostrophe has historical weight. Whether or not we should call it 'The King's Road' is a whole other argument.
Queen's Park: Applied consistently to the area and station, though not QPR football club (but then they don't play in Queen's Park).
Queen's Road (Walthamstow): Older street signs use an apostrophe, newer ones do not. The station, meanwhile, resolutely uses the apostrophe, so we're taking that as the official word. See also Queen's Road (Peckham), below.
Regent's Park: Deffo with an apostrophe. And officially, if pompously, The Regent's Park.
St James's Park: Often written erroneously as St James' Park or merely St James Park, the correct form of St James's Park is clearly shown on any literature by the Royal Parks. Funnily enough, the tube station carries roundels showing two different variations. Look ->
St John's Wood: Apart from a couple of estate agent sites, the apostrophe is almost universally applied. The LU station has an apostrophe almost everywhere, except when you get to platform level. The area is named for the Order of the Knights of St John, who owned the land.
St Paul's: The Cathedral of St Paul should surely always sport an apostrophe, and we can't find any serious counter-examples.
Shepherd's Bush: Nearly all authorities use an apostrophe, including the stations. The one contrarian is Shepherds Bush Market, and the odd street sign. If in doubt, just call it The Bush.
Barons Court: Unlike its more lordly neighbour Earl's Court, lower-ranking Barons Court nearly always lacks the apostrophe. It's a made-up name — no baron ever controlled the land — so the lack of possessive apostrophe is satisfying.
Bounds Green: Although the area gets its name from former landowners the Bounde family, convention always omits an apostrophe.
Bowes Park: As with its neighbour above, Bowes Park is named for a family, but always lacks the possessive punctuation.
Canons Park: Named after the canons of St Bart's in Smithfield, who once owned the land. Monastic types are keen on abstinence and have always forgone the apostrophe.
Colliers Wood: Some variation here. The A-Z uses an apostrophe for the area, but not the road. Like Transport for London, it also lists the tube station without an apostrophe. The name derives from a time when charcoal burners operated in the woods here. We're calling this one as 'no apostrophe', partly to conform with the station name, but also because we don't want to get into a debate about whether it should be Colliers' Wood or Collier's Wood.
Crews Hill: Similar deal to Bounds Green and Bowes Park. We might also add Devons Road, Gallions Reach (named after the Galyons family, not the big ships), Gants Hill, Golders Green, Haydons Road, Highams Park, Palmers Green, Ponders End, Rayners Lane, Raynes Park, Whipps Cross and no doubt many others. All are named after a one-time land owner, but nearly always omit the punctuation.
Parsons Green: This posh area of Fulham has predictable preachy etymology and was traditionally written as Parson's Green. These days, it's rare to see the punctuation, reinforced by the name of the tube station.
Queens Road (Peckham): Unlike Queen's Road Walthamstow, this street uses the apostrophe on both the A-Z and in the station name. Alas, the road signs demur, and leave out the mark. We could argue about it, or we could just go for a pint in Beer Rebellion, which is a much better use of time.
St Johns: Saintly place names usually include a reverential apostrophe, but not so this district of Lewisham. Most references to the area lack the mark (including, importantly, the train station), but the namesake church does include one. A similar situation occurs in St Margarets, Richmond.
It looks like there's no rhyme or reason to apostrophe use. Those looking for a comforting rule will not find one. The presence of a tube or train station can help crystallise a particular convention, but even then apostrophes come and go over the decades with the whims of fashion. We could stipulate that anywhere named after a landowner should include the possessive apostrophe, but few place names actually behave like that (see Crews Hill and entries therein).
Ultimately, it doesn't really matter. Apostrophes are important in general writing (Londonist is a web site that knows its shit, versus Londonist is a web site that knows it's shit, for example). They are less important in place names. Nobody will misunderstand you if you write Kings Cross instead of King's Cross. Place names are simply labels for locations, not descriptions, and their apostrophes could be universally scrapped with no loss of clarity. Removing the apostrophe also gives a cleaner word and fits better with modern methods of communication, such as texting, website URLs and tweeting (where an apostrophe would eat into that 140 character limit).
Still, we all like to argue about them. Long live the equivocal apostrophe.