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Kent Archaeological Review extract

The Study of Place Names.
by Dr Felix Hull.

In this brief article I propose to deal with the question of the nature of place-names work, the extent to which the unskilled person can enter into this field of research, and the present position so far as Kent is concerned. The feeling that progress is deplorably slow and that a more dynamic policy is required is fully understandable, but to some extent this anxiety is based on a lack of understanding of the nature and discipline of the subject. While I cannot hope to satisfy all uneasiness I trust that the following will dispel many uncertainties.

Place names research falls essentially into three parts: collecting, collating and interpretation. The time has long since passed when inspired guesses and romantic traditions were sufficient to determine the origin and meaning of names. Since Mawer, Skeat and Stenton established place-names study as a scientific exercise early in this century, it has been accepted that the systematic collection of names, modern, medieval and ancient is the basis of all such work and that until a collection of this kind has been made it is impossible for early forms and meanings to be satisfactorily determined. Thus collection of information is the first requisite.

At this stage the local enthusiast can assist in a variety of ways, though there are a number of caveats. The newly formed 'Names Society,' in particular, offers scope for the amateur helper, for it specialises in the collection of modern names, especially those of streets. By this means it is hoped that a record of names will be maintained and that the loss of knowledge of meanings which makes the study of older names so difficult, will be largely avoided. As can be readily appreciated, the collection of such modern names can throw considerable light upon the date of urban development, since so often local or national figures or events have been recorded in these names, e.g., Alma Street or Kitchener Road. This is an ideal field for the amateur for he can collect, collate and, in most cases, interpret, without difficulty.

Generally speaking, however, the study of place names concerns names with origins lost in antiquity and here a very different situation arises. In the first place any general survey has to be carefully organised and criteria must be established as to the names to be included. Most of the authoritative place-name books deal with parochial and principal hamlet and farm names, but relegate to an appendix what are termed 'minor' names. Just how the distinction is arrived at and its validity may be questioned, but the sheer magnitude of the study demands some limitation and this applies to any county study such as those prepared under the aegis of the English Place Names Society. On a more limited scale, however, the names of one parish only may be collected and studied and an excellent example of this kind of work is the booklet prepared in 1964 by the Edenbridge Local History Society, which although not faultless yet shows clearly what a local group can do. All the same the basic problem at whatever level remains a protracted, tedious and on the whole uninspiring task of systematic collection of data. Moreover many people have already entered the field and a considerable amount of material has been amassed over the past fifty years. The newcomer must be aware of this, otherwise there will be duplication of effort and much useless activity.

Once the information has been collected, however, there remain the tasks of collation and interpretation. The former again requires great care and attention to detail, but it is a task in which the less skilled can assist especially if expert guidance is available. The latter is essentially for the expert and is, in fact, a most difficult subject. It depends upon the linguistic disciplines of etymology and phonology, but they alone will not solve all problems. The linguist who overlooks historical fact or is unaware of the outcome of archaeological and other research will present an unsatisfactory analysis. The historian who, while taking cognisance of etymological change, nevertheless ignores topographical detail also courts disaster. Above all, place name study requires a clear scientific and objective approach; too many scholars, including Wallenberg, have been guilty of preconceived theses, sometimes transferring these from one area to another of a totally different character. The value of place name study and its proper application to other historical disciplines depends upon the careful catholicity of the collection of data and upon the wide expertise of the interpreter. Most of us in local archaeological, historical and amenity societies can collect to our hearts' content, but we tread on the delicate path of interpretation at our peril.

In Kent the situation is complex and confused. No comparable area has the quantity of documentation, especially of pre-Conquest date and therefore the outcome should be the more rewarding. The Kent Archaeological Society has been collecting data for half a century, mainly in short spasms of activity and in the midst of this J K Wallenberg, a Swede, published his two erudite, but far from satisfactory books. In this situation has lain the principal cause of delay and of frustration. For many years the English Place Names Society, aware of the importance of Kent, but alarmed by the magnitude of the task and without a suitable editor with local knowledge, has been unable to make progress. The existence of Wallenberg's books provided an excuse, perhaps too readily accepted, for delay in action. Unfortunately, too, personalities entered the field: the late D P H Reaney deeply involved with other counties, was yet able to guide a number of groups during the past decade in the collection of evidence, but the dynamic figure of Dr Gordon Ward also entered the lists individually and he collected quite independently of everyone else. One result was an index, now in the Archives Office, of at least 20,000 place names, representing years of devoted but not very systematic labour.

Within the past year the situation has begun to clear in that a Kent volume or volumes is now definitely started with Mr J McNeil Dodgson, the secretary of the English Place Names Society, as editor. For his purposes all the material collected on behalf of the Kent Archaeological Society has been transferred to London, while he and his helpers are already well aware of the late Dr Ward's contribution to the study. Even so, their estimate is that fifteen years may pass before the much sought work can be published. This is not just finance: it represents many years of steady research and collation of information before a reasonably definitive version can be presented.

In these circumstances what can be done locally? So far as the County project is concerned nothing is practicable unless it is directed and controlled by the EPNS. The Place Names Committee of the Kent Archaeological Society can act as a liaison body, but we ourselves are dependent now upon guidance from Mr Dodgson and can only refer to him any suggestions for further collecting which are made. On the other hand there is room for much more local activity: there is certainly scope as suggested within the terms of reference of the Names Society and there is room too for parochial studies along the lines of the Edenbridge exercise. It is important that projects should be systematic in their conception and the EPNS and the Place Names Committee will always give such guidance as they can as to matters of procedure. When it comes to interpretation it is essential that expert advice be sought if publication is intended-the issue of a faulty derivation can result in a long-standing error of understanding which affects persons far beyond the locality of the project.

Place-names research is a fascinating exercise, but regrettably one fraught with pit-falls and one in which no one has all the answers.

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