The Meaning of Familiar place names

British place names have travelled and so many are familiar, not just to those who are living or visiting British shores but also to others living all over the World.
Why are places names so fascinating? Assuming of course, you are indeed as fascinated by them as I am…! They are a direct link to the past, to the ground on which we are stood, even if it bears no resemblance to the features or characteristics which led to it gaining that name in the first place.
In the case of names which have travelled, for instance in the USA we have 'New' York, Manchester, Birmingham, Chester; in Australia: Newcastle, Windsor, Salisbury, there is a follow-on history. These places are named after another place in the world which has meaning for the people who choose that name.
There are some wonderful books with encyclopaedic lists of British place names and their meanings. For this blog I have relied heavily on the wonderful books by James Johnson and Charles Whynne-Hammond; 'Place Names of England and Wales' and 'Tracing the History of Place Names' respectively.
I laboured over how to present this blog. Whether to go into the elements that make up place names and their language origins, or legends that fed into names or the natural landscapes. There are so many different themes that I shall leave that to the fabulous books I have already mentioned above and instead pick out a variety of place names, with their meanings to illustrate the variety of origins.


The first example comes from two places originally with the same name, Beaulieu meaning 'beautiful place' in Norman French. Beaulieu in the New Forest has retained its name as whereas up in Worcestershire the name changed over time to become Bewdley.


This example I like because it looks obvious, a bridge over water, but is in fact derived from a bridge belonging to a Norman Baron named Walter de Dowai. It is unusual in that it is the first name of the owner which was transferred to it not his surname.


This is one for the child inside…in the Domesday book Nottingham is recorded as Snotingeham deriving from Snot-inge-ham meaning Village of Snot's people.

Bewdley, Worcestershire
Bewdley, Worcestershire. Copyright Philippa Brewell


This name derives from words for loud (hlude) and hill (hlaw) which comes from the fact that it sits high up on the hill from the River Teme above the rapids which, in time of floods, are apparently deafening..


In Old English Shrewsbury was 'scrobbes byrg', meaning castle among the shrubs or fortified place in the bushes although an alternative explanation is that it was the fortified place of a person named Scrob.


Famous as the place where Magna Carta was sealed by King John in 1215 it was known at that time as Ronimede or Runingmeth. Run referred to a meeting place, a place to talk and mead as in a meadow. Thus it was already an ancient meeting place at the time it was chosen for the negotiations between the King and his Barons.


Named relatively recently in comparison to those we have already visited, Richmond was named by Henry VII. He built a substantial palace here, replacing a previous one which had burnt down and chose the name from his previous title, 'Earl of Richmond'. The previous name for this settlement had been an Old English word meaning shed, Sceon.



Recorded as Meslach in the Domesday book, its name was a merging of the Saxon words for assembly and oak indicating the siting of an oak tree where a public assembly would take place. Continuing on the oak theme the River Derwent, which runs through the town, has its name in the Celtic language meaning 'Oak River'.

St Ives (Cambridgeshire)

The town became known as St Ivo after his bone were supposedly found here at the end of the 10th century. Up until then it had been called the rather unattractive 'Slaepe' possibly due to the slippery banks of the River Ouse which runs through it. The two were combined for a while with the town being known as St Ivo de Selepe until eventually the Selepe was dropped altogether.

I hope you've enjoyed this fun look around some of our place names and their weird and wonderful origins.

- Philippa Brewell

History Writer and History Tour Creator


Tracing the History of Place Names. Charles Whynne-Hammond. 1992. Countryside Books

Place Names of England and Wales. James Johnson. 1994. Bracken Books

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