Ancient Anglo-Saxon chiefs, old-school religious rites, and lots of animals—London’s place names reflect the city’s bygone roots. Here are the stories behind 25 of the foggy capital’s most fascinating neighborhood names.
1. BARKING AND DAGENHAM
Move along—no dogs here. This borough got the canine-sounding half of its name from the area’s original moniker, Berecingas. The Anglo-Saxon word, which dates from at least 695 CE, is thought to mean “the territory of the birch-tree people,” or possibly a reference to someone named Bereca. Meanwhile, Dagenham is thought to be in reference to a land owner named Dæcca, likely also from the 7th century.
Belgravia sounds kind of Continental, but its origin is 100 percent English. The suburb gets its name from the Grosvenor family, who developed the area in the 1820s. Alongside the title of Earl Grosvenor (and later the Marquess of Westminster, and still later Duke of Westminster), the family held the title of Viscount Belgrave, the name of part of their estate in Cheshire. Belgrave is thought to either mean “firewood” or “beautiful wood,” and the Grosvenor family still owns a large swath of the area.
Brent is a Celtic word that means “hill” or “high place,” or in this context probably “holy one,” and is the name of a small river that runs through the area and may have once been worshipped. The borough itself was named in the 1960s when two former boroughs, Wembley and Willesden, merged.
4. CAMDEN TOWN
Charles Pratt, 1st Earl Camden, owned the land that now forms Camden Town in the 18th century. His title was in reference to Camden Place, which itself was named after William Camden, a famous antiquarian. Fun fact: Unlike some of his fellow Lords, Camden didn’t support the Stamp Act, the 1765 law that forced American colonists to pay heavy taxes on papers and pamphlets to subsidize British revenue. His first speech in the House of Lords was a fiery rebuttal of the law—and a South Carolina town was named after him in celebration of his support of colonial rights.
5. CHALK FARM
If the name sounds like “Clerk’s well,” it’s for a reason. Clerk is an ancient term for an educated person or clergyman, and the priests of London are thought to have performed holy rites and religious plays annually at a spring or well in the area. Builders found the actual well in 1924.
Croydon’s not-so-pretty name derives from a beautiful sight: flowers. Crocus sativus, the flowers from which saffron is gathered, are thought to have grown in the area long ago. The Anglo-Saxons combined their word for crocus, croh, with the word for valley, denu, and later the nickname was shortened.
Ealing’s name has a long history and is thought to have derived from an Anglo-Saxon settler named Gilla. His descendants were the Gillingas, and that name eventually morphed into Yealing, Zelling and Eling, before becoming Ealing in the 19th century.
9. GOLDERS GREEN
A family named Godyer or Godyere likely gave Golders Green its alliterative name. Or maybe it was the Groles or Godders, both of whose names were associated with the neighborhood in the 1700s.
Place names that end in -wich often denote a trading settlement or a bay/harbor, and Greenwich—which lies on the River Thames—was apparently green at one point. Think of it as the Green Bay of London.
This London borough is relatively new—it was created in 1965 when London authorities merged Tottenham, Wood Green, and Hornsey into a single borough. But it takes its name from a much older word: Haringay, an Anglo-Saxon term for a rocky place, but possibly related to a Saxon chief named Haering. The neighborhood name was once spelled Haringesheye, which some pronounced as Hornsey, which is now a neighborhood within Haringay.
12. ISLE OF DOGS
The Isle of Dogs is really a peninsula according to some, and the dog part may be equally deceptive. According to Londonist’s Laura Reynolds, the neighborhood’s name could come from ducks, docks, dykes, or other D words. Nonetheless, it’s had the name since the 1500s—that’s eons in dog years.
14. KINGSTON UPON THAMES
This borough has one of London’s most straightforward place names. Yes, it’s on the River Thames, and yes, it was once filled with kings. Home to an 838 CE meeting of noblemen and clergy called by Egbert, King of Wessex, it’s been associated with royals for centuries, and supposedly seven Saxon kings were crowned here. The name itself is thought to mean a manor or estate belonging to a king.
This neighborhood might just have the cutest name, and it’s thought to have a fluffy origin. In 1088, the name Lamhytha, or "landing place for lambs,” was recorded for the area.
Nepotism gave this ritzy district its name. In 1663, Charles II gave his buddy the Earl of St. Albans the right to hold a sheep and cattle market in what is now Haymarket. According to the London Encyclopedia, it was so filthy that James II shut it down a few years later, then later gave St. Albans’s heir the right to a new market—and an annual May fair—in what is now Mayfair.
Newham is new indeed: It’s only been a borough since 1965, and since it combined two “Hams” (East Ham and West Ham), the “new” part seemed appropriate. The Old English word ham or hamm meant land that was hemmed in by water, such as the River Thames.
19. NOTTING HILL
Long before it was a rom-com, Notting Hill was, well, a hill. It was likely named after a Kensington manor owned by a baron or barons named Notting, Nutting, or Knolton Barns. Knottyng, from which the name likely derives, is a Middle English term that refers to either a hill or a place owned by someone named Cnotta.
If not for a very rich man, Richmond-upon-Thames might be called something else: Sheen. The Thames-bound town was originally named after a local palace, which was originally called Sheen (meaning bright or shining). In 1501, King Henry VII rebuilt the palace and renamed it Rychemonde, after the town from which he'd gotten his title—the Earl of Richmond—before taking the crown.
22. SHEPHERD’S BUSH
Was Shepherd’s Bush really named after a shrub? Maybe. It’s thought that there could have been a bush or tree where shepherds and their flocks rested on their way to Smithfield Market, or perhaps one on property owned by someone named Shepherd. Either way, people have thought the name was weird for a long time. In 1905, Charles George Harper wrote that “the average inhabitant of Shepherd’s Bush is so used to the daily iteration of the name that his ears are blunted to its strangeness, and it is only the new-comer whose attention is arrested, who ever asks what it means, and when and how it arose.”
23. WALTHAM FOREST
Epping doesn’t sound a lot like Waltham, but it’s the forest that gave the newish borough its name. The ancient wood now known as Epping Forest is London’s biggest open space, and it was once part of the much larger Waltham Forest, which over the years gradually shrank in size.
Westminster got its name from the church that is still its most famous resident. An abbey, church, or monastery is also known as a mynster in Old English, and Westminster Abbey was located in the westernmost part of old-school London long ago. Apparently there was once an East Minster, too, but it’s been lost to time.
Woolwich got its name from the even-more-fun to say Uuluuich, an old-fashioned word for a place where wool was traded. The -ich, a suffix that means a landing place, made Woolwich a great place to trade wool, since it’s conveniently located near the Thames.
All photos via iStock except where noted.