What's In A Name

What’s In A Name

by Philip Pavey

Ever been curious about the name of your town or village – where did it come from and what does it mean? In this enlightening article Philip Pavey tells us the origins of some place names in Mid Sussex.

Most of us will have wondered at one time or another about the origin of the name of the place where we were born or where we live. For our county an early authority on this is The Place-Names of Sussex by A. Mawer and F.M. Stenton with J.E.B. Gover, from which this article draws the original, mostly Anglo-Saxon or Old English (OE), names of all places mentioned, and their meanings in modern English. Central Sussex (the Mid-Sussex District and its periphery) gives us a good cross section of the county’s place names, and can show how their formation developed and changed over time.

As with much of England, and particularly in the south, the majority of place names date from the period of Anglo-Saxon settlement in the fifth to seventh centuries, with little reference to the Celtic Britons and Romans who preceded them. One of the most common elements is the Anglo-Saxon or Old English (OE) word inghas, which means ‘people of’. It survives as ’-ing’ or ‘-ings’ on the end of place names, often following the name of the warlord who founded the settlement – hence Weorth-inghas (Worthing) and Haest-inghas (Hastings). It occurs in other counties too (eg Dorking, Ealing, Reading) but curiously it appears to be most common in Sussex, with a concentration of no fewer than fifteen within a ten mile radius of Worthing. Central Sussex contains the eastern tail of this group, where, stretching along the bottom of the South  Downs – probably the initial area of Anglo-Saxon settlement – we have Beeding (Baeda-inghas), Fulking (Folca-inghas), Poynings (Puna-inghas) and Ditchling (Dicel-inghas). Beeding of course bears the prefi x ‘Upper’, in contrast to Lower Beeding, which paradoxically lies over ten miles upstream on the river Adur, and on higher ground. Mawer, Stenton and Gover suggest that Upper Beeding was probably the original settlement (hence upper in the sense of chief or more important) with a later Wealden off shoot to the north used for swine pasture.

With Ditchling, I wondered in an earlier article whether its prospective founder ‘Dicel’ might not have been an Anglo-Saxon warrior but the Irish monk Dicuil, recorded by the eighth century historian Bede as the first to bring Christianity to Sussex. His unsuccessful mission at Bosham near Chichester was supplanted by that of St Wilfrid, who had little time for Celtic Christianity, so it seemed possible that Dicuil could have moved thirty miles eastwards to evangelise East Sussex  from Ditchling. I have now found that I was not the first to think of this – a history of the village written a century ago puts forward the same possibility. If true, it gives Ditchling a major role in the early history of the county.

Just west of Ditchling lies the village of Keymer, whose meaning is ‘cow pond’ (OE cu mere), a watering place for cattle. On old maps it is spelt Kymer and a resident I once met insisted that this was the correct pronunciation. Within a mile lies Clayton, with its ancient church and windmills (and tunnel!) whose name means ‘farm on the clay’’ (OE claeg tun). I have certainly climbed the Downs from here starting in woodland and been surprised at the muddy clay path where I would expect well drained chalk. The other ‘–ton’ name in the locality is Westmeston, at the foot of Ditchling Beacon, whose name means ’ most westerly farm (OE westmaest tun). Mawer, Stenton and Gover suggest that this means a farm on the edge of a landholding centred further east, perhaps at Plumpton or Lewes.

Close by, in among the lower slopes of the central South Downs, lie the hamlets of Pyecombe and Saddlescombe, whose meanings are ‘valley marked by a projecting hill’ (OE peac cumb) and ‘valley of or near a saddle of land’ (OE saedel cumb). When I was growing up in Moulsecoomb, a south-facing valley at the back of Brighton, it was commonly held that combe or coomb was a rare borrowing into English from the Celtic British language, the precursor of Welsh and Cornish – the Welsh for valley being cwm (pronounced coom) as in Cwm Rhondda. If so then these two names unusually retain a Celtic linguistic root. The same would be true of Balcombe, around fifteen miles further north in the high woodland of the Weald, whose name means ‘Bealda’s valley’ (OE Beala cumb). The French-speaking Normans curiously made little impact on place names in Sussex, as elsewhere. The only examples I can find in central Sussex are Hurstpierpoint, near the Downs, and Horsted Keynes in the Weald. Hurst means ‘wooded hill’ in Old English to which the new eleventh century lord, Robert de Pierrepont, added his surname. Mawer, Stenton and Gover add that this derived from his home village of Pierrepont (stone bridge?) near Falaise in Normandy. Horsted Keynes similarly retains its Anglo-Saxon name, which means place where horses are kept (OE hors stede) and adds Keynes (pronounced canes) from the new proprietor, William de Cahaignes. Mawer, Stenton and Gover locate this also as a village in Normandy, between Vire and Bayeux.

Moving from the east to the west side of the Wealden part of central Sussex we find Ansty, curiously meaning ‘a track’ (OE an stig).I have always pronounced it An-stee though I know some who insist on An-stye. Nearby is Bolney, meaning Bolla’s island (OE Bolla eg) which could suggest that the surrounding area, by the river Adur, was marshland.

A few miles east, in the heart of Mid-Sussex we have Cuckfield, meaning ‘cuckoo haunted open land’ (OE cucu feld) which explains why the first syllable of the village name is pronounced ‘cook’ rather than rhyming with Uckfield; and Lindfield, meaning ‘lime (tree) open land’ (OE linda feld). It seems to me from this that the Anglo-Saxon word feld was perhaps closer in meaning to the Dutch and Afrikaans veld than its modern English descendant ‘field’. Both names also seem suggestive of tracts of land which were named before they became settlements. Nearby Wivelsfield, though, is named from its Anglo-Saxon proprietor (OE Wifelesfeld) possibly indicating Wifele’s residence there; while to the west Staplefield, meaning ‘open land marked by a post or staple’ (OE stapolfeld) also seems to have someone staking a claim to it. In my experience there is unanimity that neighbouring Slaugham is pronounced ‘Slaffham’, and its name, as so often in this area, is a geographical description, ‘Sloe ham’ (OE slah  ham). I understand ham here will mean village, since a hamlet is a small one.

Going north into the area of Sussex that is still mostly woodland we have Ardingly, meaning ‘clearing of Earda’s people’ (OE Eardingalega) and West Hoathly, meaning ‘heath clearing’ (OE haeth lega). The prefix ‘west’ first appears some centuries later, as does the ‘east’ in East Hoathly, clearly so as to distinguish the two. It seems possible that in the –ly suffix we may have etymological evidence of the Anglo-Saxons moving north from their more easily farmed Downland environment and hewing new settlements out of the forest.

In my experience Ardingly is invariably pronounced Arding-lie, but local people I have asked have differed as to whether West Hoathly is Hoath-lie or –lee. The old Sussex saying which guides on such pronunciation – “East Hoathly, Chiddingly and Hellingly – three lies and all true” – implies that West Hoathly should follow suit. But since it concerns three villages clustered way over in eastern Sussex it might not necessarily apply here.

Mawer, Stenton and Gover cite the first known reference to Handcross as 1617, and think it may refer to a one-armed cross serving as a signpost. It seems the origin of my favourite place name in the county, Pease Pottage, might be from a similar period, as they quote a source identifying it as a stop for a meal for prisoners en route to Horsham gaol. Further east Turner’s Hill appears to be the property or residence of someone whose trade (or whose ancestor’s trade) was that of a turner, ie of wood on a lathe. Close by, near the county boundary with Surrey, is the market town of East Grinstead, whose name just means ‘green place’ (OE grenesteda), the ‘east’ being appended in more recent centuries, as with ‘west’ for its more westerly namesake. Also at the northern tip of central Sussex is Worth, now subsumed in Crawley, but once an enclosure (OE worth) in the forest – still a small community but possessed of a relatively large and splendid late Anglo-Saxon church. One local explanation I have heard for this is that perhaps the enclosure was a base for royal hunting parties.

Worth is close by Three Bridges, also included in the post-war creation of Crawley new town but apparently dating back only to the opening of the London to Brighton railway line in 1841. Mawer, Stenton and Gover cite earlier references to a bridge, and also to two bridges, in the area, but nothing clearly indicating an earlier community. The map shows three bridges in the locality, where  the railway line passes over one road and under two others, so it seems to me that the name might have been a creation of the railway company. Further down the line Haywards Heath was just a heath before 1841, lying between Cuckfield and Lindfield which both opposed the railway line in their areas, though I can find no indication of who Hayward was. In similar fashion Burgess Hill was just a hill before the age of steam, but in this case Mawer, Stenton and Gover say it is named from its association with a fourteenth century family called Burgeys. Even more prosaically they tell us that the next community and station southwards, Hassocks, was previously merely a field in the district with very tough hassocks, meaning tussocks or clumps of grass.

Following the main line through Clayton tunnel we arrive at Preston Park, the village name meaning ‘priests’ farmstead’ (OE preost tun) and ultimately Brighton – spelt on old maps ‘Brighthelmstone’ and according to local tradition founded by a Saint Brighthelm. A nineteenth century history of the borough (now of course with Hove a city) says that Brighthelm was a bishop who arrived with the Saxon warlord Aelle in 447. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records Aelle’s invasion of the Sussex coast from 477 to 491 but makes no mention of Brighthelm. If the story were true it would make Brighton the cradle of English Christianity (rather than Canterbury with St Augustine’s arrival in 597) but sadly it appears this is mistaken! Nevertheless Brighton is one of a select few places to be named after a founding saint, and it is a pity in my view that he is so little referenced and recognised in the city.

The further we delve into place names, down to street names and even house names, the more we are enlightened about the area we reside in. So, your quirky or interestingly named town or village might mean more than just your home.


  1. Mawer, A. , Stenton, F.M. , Glover, J.E.B. , The Place Names of Sussex, Cambridge University Press, Vol. I 1929, Vol. II 1930.
  2. Armstrong, J.R., A History of Sussex, Phillimore & Co. Ltd, London & Chichester, 3rd edition 1974, p.39
  3. Bede: The Ecclesiastical History of the English People, Oxford World’s Classics, (2008), Translated by Bertram Colgrave. With the Greater Chronicle and Letter to Egbert translated, and edited with introduction and notes by Judith McClure, and Roger Collins. Oxford University Press, p.193.
  4. Ibid., p.155.
  5. Cheal, Henry, The History of Ditchling in the County of Sussex, Lewes & South Counties Press ltd, 1901 (re-published by Country Books, Bakewell, Derbyshire, 2004, p.3).
  6. Lucas, E.V., Highways and Byways in Sussex, second edition 1935, reprinted 1950, Macmillan & Co. Ltd, London, p. 342
  7. Martin, Henry, The History of Brighton and Environs, 1871, John Beal, Brighton, p.3.
  8. Translated & collated by Anne Savage, The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, Book Club Associates, London, 1982, pp.29 & 35.