William Dargue A History of BIRMINGHAM Places & Placenames from A to Y
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This city of a million people, and a million more near neighbours, is made up of many different geographical and social communities, all interlinked and interdependent. And this has always been the case.
Although population numbers diminish the further we go back in time, and geographical separation becomes greater, for thousands of years people like you and me have lived their lives in the area we now call Birmingham. Here you can investigate the meaning of the city‘s placenames and catch glimpses of its distant past. Hidden in these ancient names are clues about the preoccupations of our predecessors as they lived and laughed and toiled and travelled in a pre-industrial landscape.
Many of the city's present placenames date from the Anglo-Saxon period over one thousand years ago. Names such as Birmingham and Erdington bear the names of their early founders, tribal leaders setting out with their people on a new and a risky venture. Walmley and Yardley tell of farm clearings in the dense oak forest, while Northfield suggests land already cleared perhaps by previous inhabitants. An Anglo-Saxon yeoman, Ecgbeald is remembered for his farm in Edgbaston, as are Dudd at Duddeston and Macca at Mackadown. And at a time when every community had to be self-sustaining, placenames also indicate the presence of valuable natural resources: willows at Saltley for wicker and basket making, ash trees at Ashold grown for poles, and at Lyndon lime tree bark used for making ropes. There is evidence of pig pastures, wheat fields, water meadows, fish pools and rabbit warrens.
For travellers placenames were signposts indicating the nature of the country through which they were to pass. They would know from its name that Bromford was a good river crossing, while Stechford was better avoided in wet weather; that Greet Hill would be passable throughout the year, whereas travel through Solihull would be a struggle in winter. The traveller could navigate by recognising different types of hills, whether a dun at Sheldon, a hook at Hill or a scylf at Selly. And different types of woodland gave a clue, be it a wudu, sceaga or hurst. Passage through liht woods would be pleasant but a bokenholt might be gloomy. And the Anglo-Saxon traveller would know by its name that Weoley was a sacred site where he could pray to his gods for safe passage through a remote and desolate region.
Places continued to be named after the Anglo-Saxon period. The name of Ashted coined in the 18th century for a high-class out-of-town development has nothing to do with ash trees but took its name from a prominent Birmingham citizen. The apparently rural names of Nechells Green and Castle Vale tell of vast inner-city slum clearances during the 1960s with the hope of a different kind of future. Heartlands and Eastside tell of economic regeneration in the 1990s. And the districts dubbed the Chinese Quarter and the Balti Triangle reflect 20th-century immigration to the city.
Many Birmingham names were recorded for the first time in the Domesday Book of 1086. Kings Norton was listed here in the personal possession of William the Conqueror. However, Birmingham's earliest recorded placenames are to be found in a charter of King Offa of Mercia which dates back some thirteen centuries. Probably the oldest Birmingham name is that of the beacon at Barr whose Ancient British name was given long before the Anglo-Saxon invasion.
Some events in Birmingham's history can be detected in placenames: Stirchley and Streetly are evidence of Roman occupation, while Cannon Hill and Camp Hill are reminders of the English Civil War. And placenames recall a host of otherwise-forgotten landowners, including the Acoks and Adderleys, the Kemps and the Kayes, and the Wards and the Walkers. So, from the comfort of Broomy Nook and Cheerful Farm to the Bleak Hill or even as far as the World's End, here you will begin to discover something of Birmingham's past.