|A Peculiar Tour of London Below
Mad Scientess Jane Expat
I visited the London Transport Museum a few weeks ago to pick up some gifts for friends & relatives in the States, and I came across a book I liked so much I bought a copy for myself as well as becala. It’s What’s in a name? by Cyril M. Harris, and it attempts to track the history of the names of all the stations on the London Underground. I’ve selected a few examples that have personal significance and put them under the cut.
A Peculiar Tour of London Below
- Barbican (Circle, Hammersmith & City*, Metropolitan) – “Barbicana” or “burgh kenning”
Barbican was called barbicana when a Roman Tower once stood just north of the street that now bears this name. Barbicana is Latin in origin and, in its turn, is probably from the Persian working meaning ‘upper chamber’. The Saxons named the tower burgh kenning meaning ‘town watchtower’, on which for many centuries fires were lit to guide travellers to their destinations across London. It seems the tower was pulled down in 1267 on the orders of Henry III but it was then rebuilt in 1336 on the orders of Edward III. The date when the tower was finally demolished is uncertain but it is known there was a house on the site in 1720. The area has been extensively re-developed since the Second World War as the Barbican Project. (It’s important to me because: It’s my favourite theatre to sip red wine and watch storytelling & performance art in.)
- Chiswick Park (District) – “Ceswican”
Recorded as Ceswican c. 1000. Chiswick has been through various spellings throughout time, and is thought to derive from the Old English ‘cese’ (cheese) and ‘wic’ (farm). Although there are parks nearby the station, they are not connected with the original park. (It’s important to me because: It’s near my current abode, and because the grandmother of one of my flatmates owned a cheese farm in Cheshire.)
- Gloucester Road (Circle, District, Piccadilly) – “Hog Moore Lane”
Gloucester Road was known as ‘Hog Moore Lane’ as late as 1858 and at this time was probably descriptive of a muddy tract. Was re-named in the early 19th century after Maria, Duchess of Gloucester, who lived in the road at the turn of the century. (It’s important to me because: I disembark here to go to work every day. Also, the place is full of pretentious Americans, so it amuses me that they’re so proud to live on a street that until very recently was not a desirable bit of property.)
- Hammersmith (District, Hammersmith & City, Piccadilly) – “Hamorsmydde”
Hammersmith was recorded as ‘Hammersmyth’ in 1294 and was a hamlet within Fulham until 1834. The origin of the name is in doubt. Some suggest that it is derived from Old English ‘ham’ (a home or town) and ‘hythe’ (a port) – ‘the home by the port’, referring to its location on the Thames. More likely it comes from Old English ‘hamor’ (hammer) and ‘smydde’ (a smithy) – referring to a local blacksmith who once lived there. (It’s important to me because: I pass through it every day to get to work. It’s bizarre and tangly and has old-fashioned arches over the pedestrian subways at the intersections, which are nearly always flooded.)
- Highbury & Islington (Victoria) – “Heybury & Gislandune”
Originally Highbury was a summer camp of the Romans and during the 13th century the Priory of St John of Jerusalem had a manor here that was destroyed in 1381. Recorded as ‘Heybury’ during the 14th century, the name is derived from ‘high’ and the Old English ‘burh (the manor on the high ground) as opposed to nearby Canonbury and Barnsbury which stood on lower ground. Islington, recorded as ‘Gislandune’ c. 1000 and ‘Isendone’ in the Domesday Book, is derived from: 1. The personal name ‘Gisla’ and the Old English ‘dun’ (hill or down), hence ‘Gisla’s hill’ referring to a Sacon and his family who once lived on the site here, or: 2. The Old English ‘Gisel’ (a hostage) and ‘dun’, indicating that hostages were held here, or; 3. Old English ‘Isel’ (lower) and ‘don’, which can be interpreted as meaning ‘a fortified enclosure’. It was recorded as ‘Islyndon’ in 1554. (It’s important to me because: It’s near my previous abode, where I resided for almost two years.)
- London Bridge (Jubilee, Northern)
It is possible that there was a bridge not far east of the present one in the year 43 and there have been many bridges across the River Thames here in the course of history, the fifth and latest one being opened in March 1973 and the old bridge being sold and re-erected stone by stone in Arizona. [What?!] The poem which opens ‘London Bridge is falling down’ refers to the battle in 1014 between King Aethelred of the English and the Danes, after which the bridge collapsed. (It’s important to me because: It’s near my favourite market for a hangover breakfast and a coffee, Borough.)
- Southwark (Jubilee) – “Suthriganawoerc”
Southwark lies on the south side of the Thames. A stone bridge was built here over the river, probably by the Romans soon after they landed in AD43. Called ‘Suthriganawoerc’ in the 10th century – meaning ‘fort of the men of Surrey’. It was recorded as ‘Sudwerca’ in the Domesday Book – meaning ‘southern defensive work or fort’, from the Old English ‘suth’ and ‘woerc’. (It’s important to me because: of the cathedral. If I were religious, I would attend services here.)
- Walthamstow Central (Victoria) – “Wilcumestowe”
Walthamstow Central was recorded as ‘Wilcumestowe’ c. 1075 and the name may be derived from the Old English ‘wilcume’ (welcome) and ‘stow’ (a holy place) – ‘the holy place with a welcome’. [As anyone who’s actually been to Walthamstow knows, this name is about as deeply ironic as it’s possible to get. Unless you consider kebab shops and seedy off-licenses to be signs of divinity.] Alternatively, the name may derive from a religious place once founded here by a woman named ‘Wilcume’. It was recorded as ‘Walthanstowe’ in 1446. (It’s important to me because: A disproportionate number of friends reside there.)
*Lovingly referred to as the “Hammersmith & Shitty” by jaded locals.
If you want to decipher the name of a Tube stop, you can do quite well knowing just a few of these Old English & Celtic words.
Lea – Celtic: light river, Old English (often “leah”): forest clearing
Tun – farm
Wic or wych – farm
Stone – boundary stone
Burh – manor house
Dun – hill or down
Mynster – church
For instance, if you were to see Leytonstone (Central Line), you would be right to suppose it a combination of lea, tun and stone, or “the boundary stone at the farm by the light river”. It’s also fair to suppose that many station names are derived from the surnames of the former occupants of the land on which the station stands (e.g. Vauxhall).
Try and puzzle one out!