Place names are weird, huh? And Birmingham has tons of places, so you have to wonder who found them all – and how.
Fortunately, people have been searching for this knowledge for generations. There are many hidden clues in our story.
What is the oak in Selly Oak, for example? Why is it “King’s” Norton?
READ MORE:Photos unearthed of how Birmingham lounged and cooked in the summer of 1976
Here are some of the origins of the major place names in South Brum. The weird, the wonderful and the surprisingly simple – if you know your old English.
Let’s start at Selly Oak, a stop on Bristol Road outside the city. Some of Birmingham’s oldest pottery was unearthed here, and there was a Roman garrison in what we now call Fort Metchley after the invasion of Britain.
So there is a lot of history here. But we have to jump a thousand years ahead, to another group of invaders, to find out why we call it Selly Oak – William the Conqueror and his Normans.
After his invasion he commissioned the Domesday Book, which is a great survey of all the land he had just acquired. And what his new subjects owed him in taxes and men – he was king, and that’s what they did.
We get Selly from “Escelie”, the name given to an area covered in mansions owned by a Wulfwin at the time. The “Oak” is added much later, and may refer to the one growing there in the early 18th century, moved to Selly Park in 1909.
Kings Norton and Kings Heath
These two belong to a couple, as we shall see. These names begin before the Normans arrived, and the Norton is “Nortune” or “Nortun” – Old English for North Settlement.
A pretty basic and sensible name, all things considered. It became the site of a royal mansion after the Normans arrived and made England as we know it, so there are also the “Kings” settled there.
If we left medieval rule, Kings Heath would belong to Kings Norton. It was part of the royal mansion of Kings Norton.
A heather was a general term for a large open field. And it was King’s Land, so Kings Heath – or “Kingesheth” as it was first recorded in 1511.
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This one is a little trickier. We already know how “heath” finds its way into a place name, so we need to look at Balsall.
“Bordeshale” is the first written reference to this place, in 1275. Bord could be a person, someone who built or owned the land.
A “Hale” or “Halh” is a corner or shelter. A wedge was a name for a small piece of land, and we still use the wedge today to refer to small places.
Over time, everything has been chopped up and changed, as every place name does. And we ended up with Balsall Heath.
This one is reminiscent of the old Celtic saints, communing with the spirit of the earth in wide open spaces. We already know the heathers, of course.
The reality is disappointing, however. “Druids” is a distorted form of “Drews”, instead.
The Drew family were farmers and they operated in the area until the middle of the 19th century. Their farm was somewhere near the west side of the Maypole.
And so we get Drew’s Heath, entering Druids Heath. It’s amazing how small changes in written language can make a big difference!
From heather to meadows. A ley is a clearing in the woods and probably refers to the one that existed between Chinn Creek and Haunch Creek.
“Marbles” is something belonging to a Bill, or could be a form of “hill”. So, Bill’s Ley – easy.
Bill seems too modern to come from Old English, but Williams has been around for a very long time in this country. It will probably just be a variation, rather than the modern nickname we use it for.
Yardley and Yardley Wood
Going back to 972 AD, we see a “Gyrdleah”. This is the name of the parish in the area, which also included Hall Green and Stechford.
A “gyrd” was a measurement of land at the time. They later called it a “yard”, but not as we know it – more like 30 acres than 3 feet.
A “ley” is a clearing, and a wood is a wood as we know it today. So Yardley and Yardley Wood.
This trendy spot was once home to the loudest church bells in the country. The sounds of thunder and discord might have scared off former residents.
“Museleie” is how it was first recorded in William the Conqueror’s Domesday Book. It was already an established place when the Normans arrived, with a local lord and manor.
“Muse” means mouse or mouse. So we get “mouse cleanup” when we add the -ley, and there must be a lot of it for the Saxons to name a place.
Early references to this location called it “Celboldestone” or “Celboldistane” in the Domesday Book. You might assume that the “-stone” has some meaning.
However, it is generally accepted that this was a spelling error on the part of the Norman scribes. Edgbaston is believed to be “Ecgbert’s ton” – Ecgbert’s farm or settlement here.
This farm is believed to be the site of the present Edgbaston Hall. One wonders if misspellings have changed other place names.
Sometimes place names are as simple as that. Cotta’s crest, this one, with Cotta being a person’s name.
The “ridge” is thought to be where the Northfield road is these days. This great road was a route used at the time to avoid the more difficult terrain between the Rea River and Merritts Creek.
Northfield is pretty simple too. “Nordfeld” was his name in the Domesday Book.
Originally a small village, part of a larger parish, it expanded in the 12th and 13th centuries. But before that it was recorded as having just over 30 people, farming for the local lords.
We know leys are clearings, so we just need to figure out who or what a “Tyse” is. The obvious answer is that Tyse or “Tyssa” is a person, and that’s her glade.
There is a second option, however. The Tyssa is a river in Norway, coming from the old German “twis”, meaning “split”.
It could therefore be a clearing divided in two. But given the number of other people’s names, Tyssa probably founded this place.
The origins of this one might be unflattering. “Horeborne” was written in the Domesday Book, coming from the Old English “horu burna” – brook or dirty stream.
The first part could also have roots in “har”, or gray. This could refer to markers that may have been placed by Bourn Creek.
The green part is quite simple. This is probably some field of some sort, where you would take your cows, horses, etc., to graze on the green grass.
It’s not the village square, by the way. The actual green was somewhere on Warwick Road.
Acock was a family that lived here for hundreds of years, first recorded by their house in 1370 and then by a “John Acok” 50 years later.
They are long gone, but the name remains. The two names were brought together in a parish register in 1602 or 1604.
In the clearest example of “say it as you see it” to date, we have Longbridge. This is a bridge over the Rea, believed to have been built sometime before the mid-18th century.
Today, modern engineering pulls the Rea under the A38 into a tunnel, sending it northeast along the railway tracks. Before that, a long bridge would do.
In fact, one of our earliest recorded place names, this one dates back to 780 AD. At the time it was “Wreodenhale”, so it has been simplified over time.
A “wreadhen” or “wreadhan” is a thicket, dense bushes and trees. Hale, as we learned from Balsall Heath, is a nook or shelter, so probably refers to a settlement of some sort.
Next to the 8th century “Thicket Nook” is Rubery. This name comes from much later, in 1650.
‘Robery’ or ‘row berwe’ means rugged hills, which makes sense for a place nestled around the Lickeys. He may not have been referring to a specific location at the time, as the rubella we know today largely originated in the last century.
What other origins of place names do you know of in South Birmingham? Are there any you would like to discover? Comment below or talk to us in our Facebook nostalgia group.
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