Behind The Names: London Borough of Southwark

In the third installment of our series explaining the origins of the names of the areas of South London we will be focusing on the great London Borough of Southwark. Along with Lambeth, Lewisham and Greenwich it forms part of what we like to call the 'four shark teeth' of South London. We might have included Wandsworth in that list because it does look a little - actually a lot - like tiger shark tooth. Go on, search the boundaries of Wandsworth and then compare it against a tiger shark tooth. You'll see, you will all see. Anyway, less about fearsome fish and more about the reason behind the names of areas. Southwark is probably the installment we've looking forward to most because of some of the really curious names in the borough, like Denmark Hill or Elephant and Castle - frankly, we really cannot wait to explain it.


This name is pretty self-explanatory in all honesty. It was referred to as 'the Bank syde' by 1554, which is from Middle English and translates as 'street or district alongside the bank of the Thames'. 


Now, unlike Bankside, this one is a little more curious - it's not like you're going to be able to piece this one together without a little help. Recorded by the Anglo-Saxons in 712 as 'Vermundsei' - the 'v' being pronounced 'b' - this was then written as 'Bermundesye' in the Domesday Book (1086), and by 1450 it was recorded as both 'Bermonsey' and 'Barmesey'. A name of Old English origin, it translates as an 'island site of a man called Beornmund', this island likely being a piece of dry ground along the marshland that used to lie all along the southern bank of the Thames. 'Barmesey' is a phonetic spelling of the old local pronunciation, however the less literal spelling is the one more commonly used today.


Though just referred to now as Borough, the borough in question is 'the borough of Southwark', as recorded in 1603. From the Old English 'burh' which translates as a 'suburb of a city', it is a stipulation that contrasts it with the 'City' on the northern side of the river. Borough High Street was also referred to as 'Long Southwark' by 1603.


The earliest known written reference to Camberwell is in the Domesday Book in which it is recorded as 'Cambrewelle'. This didn't change a huge amount over the years, and was recorded as 'Camberwelle' by 1241. From Old English, the second half - like Stockwell and Ladywell - translates as 'spring or stream'. The meaning of the first half is slightly less clear however, and there are a couple of theories over the reason behind it. One suggests that it comes from the Latin term 'camera' which translates as 'vault or room', and may refer to a structure of some kind that existed by the spring referred to in the second half. A second theory suggests that it may derive from the Old English 'Cumberwell' which translates as 'well of the Britons', and may be an allusion to the area being populated by Celts during the Anglo-Saxon dominance. There is also a theory that has been advanced in recent years that the literal 'Camber Well' was in use well into the 19th century, and that the well took on this name because the water was used by local churches to treat individuals with life-threatening diseases like leprosy. We could list every theory, but we won't because there are quite a few, and you can look those up if you wish.

Denmark Hill

Prince George of Denmark

Prince George of Denmark

Here we go, here we go, here we go - one of the more peculiar names of Southwark. Is it down to there being a large proportion of Danish people living on a hill? No, sadly it isn't, it's actually a bit disappointing. Recorded as 'Dulwich Hill' in 1786, the name had been changed to 'Denmark Hill' by 1816 apparently in honour of Prince George of Denmark, who lived in the area, and was the husband of Queen Anne.


Recorded as 'Dilwihs' in an Anglo-Saxon charter of 967, which became 'Dulwyche' by 1555, it comes from Old English and translates as a 'marshy meadow where dill grows'. That's it. Nothing else, no big story, just a damp field where a herb grew.

Elephant and Castle

Most of you will have theories as to where the name Elephant and Castle comes from - is it a literal description of the area? Was there a castle in the area, and did an elephant regularly frequent that castle? One can only hope. The name actually comes from a local 18th-century inn called the Elephant and Castle which had a large model of an elephant and a castle for a sign. This begs the question though, why did it have this sign? Apparently, the combination of an elephant and a castle is an old heraldic symbol, and before the inn, the site was occupied by the Worshipful Company of Cutlers, an ancient livery company who used the symbol in their coat of arms because they dealt in ivory. The area used to just be part of Newington, a name we will explain later.


An area name that still exists, but is now curiously underused, Newington was first recorded as 'Neuton' in the 13th century. This had morphed into 'Neuwyngton' by 1325, and it comes from Old English, translating as 'the new farmstead or estate'. The 'new' aspect of the name relates to it being the newer part of the manor of Walworth.


Some say that the name comes from the area looking like a nun's head on maps, while others say that the locals had a tradition of brutally decapitating nuns and hanging them on their front doors. Those individuals are probably wrong. Recorded as 'Nunhead' by 1680, the name comes from a local inn called 'The Nuns Head'. Curiously, the second theory previously referred to isn't that far from the local mythology. The pub name apparently came from the area being the location where a Mother Superior was beheaded by Henry VIII for opposing the dissolution of the monasteries.


Called 'Pecheham' in the Domesday Book (1086), which became 'Pekkham' by 1361, the name is Old English and translates as a 'homestead by a peak or hill', the hill in question likely being Telegraph Hill. Some argue that the name is actually Saxon, and refers to the settlement being on the bank of the River Peck, which we described in our article about the rivers of South London.


For those of you who argued back in our explanation of the names of Lewisham that the theory we advanced for Catford's name is that it was a ford frequented by wild cats was incorrect, and that the name was actually a reference to 'cattle, the explanation for Rotherhite proves that the name Catford has nothing to do with cattle. In 1105, the name of the area was recorded as 'Rederheia', and by 1621 this had become 'Rotherhith' and 'Redderiffe', the name being Old English and meaning a 'landing place for cattle'. The second name was a phonetic spelling that relates to the original local pronunciation of the name. If the name Catford had anything to do with cattle it would have been called Redderford or Retherford. So there, boo, we win. Catford is about cats and Rotherhite is about cows.


We've explained the reasons behind the names Lewisham and Lambeth - now it's the turn of Southwark. Old English in origin, it was listed in 1086 as 'Sudwerca' in the Domesday Book, this had become 'Suthewark' by 1298, and it translates as 'southern defensive work or fort'. This name refers to the settlements location on the southern end of London Bridge, and how it existed in relation to the City north of the river. Though prior to the Norman conquest it had been recorded as 'Suthriganaweorc' which translates as 'fort of the men of Surrey', it is clear that it was a settlement closely linked with the idea of defending London.

Surrey Docks

The use of the name Surrey comes from the fact that the area, much like the rest of the borough of Southwark, was historically in the county of Surrey, and the docks bit comes from the fact that it was dockland.


Referred to as 'Wealawyrth' in an Anglo-Saxon charter of 1001, and then 'Waleworde' (isn't that almost a pokemon?) in the Domesday Book of 1086, the area eventually came to be recorded as 'Walworth' by 1354. The name is Old English and means the 'enclosed settlement of the Britons' - similar to one of the theories behind nearby Camberwell. Now one of those theories is probably true, so it is likely that the area was known for a surviving population of Celts during the Anglo-Saxon period.

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