Recent place-name survey work: examples from Shropshire

This post is a summary of the talk given by Dr John Baker from the Institute for Name-Studies (University of Nottingham) at the Staffordshire Record Office on 4th February 2017.

More information about the Shropshire survey can be found on the project website.

The place-names of Shropshire


Margaret Gelling (1924-2009). Copyright Peter Gelling and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons License.

The Shropshire place-name survey has been conducted over almost sixty years, beginning in 1959. Work was begun on the collection of Shropshire’s place-names by a group of dedicated volunteers, under the watchful eye of Margaret Gelling. Gelling wrote six volumes of the English Place-Name Society survey of the county before her death in 2009, the last of which was published posthumously in 2012. The part of the county which remained to be covered was the south and part of the west, along the Welsh border.

A four-year project, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, began in January 2013, with the aim of completing the EPNS survey of Shropshire. The project was conducted by researchers at the Institute for Name-Studies (University of Nottingham) and the Centre for Advanced Welsh and Celtic Studies (University of Wales). The project is now complete, and the EPNS survey volumes for Shropshire will be available soon.


The Hundreds of Shropshire covered by the EPNS survey up to 2012. Volume I covered major place-names.

The material collected by the Shropshire volunteers included 20,000 Shropshire deeds, and published material (such as parish registers) available through the Public Record Office. The volunteers recorded historic place-names on slips of paper, which are neatly stored in Gelling’s shoeboxes!

An indispensable resource for the field-names of Shropshire  has been the copy Tithe maps painstakingly redrawn by George Foxall. Usually a Tithe Apportionment consists of a map with labelled plot numbers, and an accompanying Award with field-names, owners and occupiers listed against the plot numbers. Foxall recreated the maps to Ordnance Survey scale and accuracy, and added the field-names to the map itself. This enabled researchers on the project to use digital scans of Foxall’s maps in GIS mapping software.


Slips of paper containing place-names collected by Shropshire volunteers

The remainder of this blog post will share some of the exciting findings from the Shropshire project so far, with a focus on those parts of the county closest to the Staffordshire border.

A new Old English word?

There is a farm in Astley Abbotts which was called Boldings Farm on the Ordnance Survey 6″ map, Bolding on Foxall’s Tithe Award map, and Bowlings Farm on the Ordnance Survey 1″ map. Its historic forms include The Bowlings (1794), and both Boldyng and Boldyng’ in the fourteenth and sixteenth centuries.

So could this place-name have come from a family name (surname)? P. H. Reaney, in his Dictionary of British Surnames, suggests that Bolding is a variant of Balding, and is a name local to Shropshire. However, there were very few people with either Bolding or Balding as a surname in the nineteenth century anywhere in the West Midlands, and none at all in Shropshire. It seems unlikely, therefore, that the farm would have been named from a person or family called Bolding.

However, there is a Middle English word bilding, which meant ‘architectural design or style, architecture’ which has the variant spelling boldyng in a Gloucestershire source around 1400.

Could there have been a Middle English or Old English word *bolding?

In Old English, a boðl was a ‘dwelling’ or ‘house’. There are two variations on the word that we know about: one, botl, was typically used in the East Midlands and in the north of England; the other, bold, is the form you would expect to find in Shropshire. Old English *bolding would, therefore, be a suffixed form of bold, and might have been formed by analogy with the word ge-byltung ‘building, dwelling’. We know that the botl variation created the word botlung, so a bolding seems perfectly plausible.

Unexpected Welsh names!

There seem to be some Welsh personal names present in place-names even to the east of the River Severn. Madog seems to be found in Maddocks (1617), Howell in Howells Copy (19th century), Rhys in Rhees’s Meadow (1770). There are Welsh family names too: Davies in Davies’s Barn Leasow (1770), and Prys in Pris Close (1770). Although these were Welsh names, this doesn’t mean that the Welsh language was spoken in the area – only that people who may have had Welsh heritage were living in Shropshire and gave their names to these places.

Cwm Mawr Wood in Quatt, and the nearby Brin Pool, seem to come from the Welsh language. Cwm Mawr would seem to derive from Welsh cwm ‘valley’ and mawr ‘big, great’, while Brin Pool looks like it comes from Welsh bryn(n) ‘hill’ and pwll ‘pool’. However, Foxall’s Tithe Award drawing shows both names as having alternatives: Commer Wood and Brim Pool. It’s quite likely that these are relatively modern “Cymricisations” (i.e. giving the names a more Welsh character) that may not reflect their etymologies at all.


Extract from Foxall’s copy Tithe Map of Quatt parish. Copyright Shropshire Archives.

A main road in Morville

Harpswood, in Morville, looks like it ought to have Old English wudu ‘wood’ as its second element. A look at the older spellings of the name, however, shows that it comes from quite a different word. It was Harpefort c. 1090, Harpford in 1271-2, Harpesford c. 1160, and Harpsford in 1650. In fact, there was even a mill nearby which is still called Harpsford Mill today. These spellings show clearly that the name actually came from the Old English word ford ‘river-crossing’.


Photograph taken from the modern Harpswood Bridge.

The first part of the name came from Old English here-pæð ‘army path’. So Harpswood was, in fact, where the army-path crossed the river (or stream). A here-pæð wasn’t always literally a road used by armies, but was a main road suitable for use by large numbers of people. So you could think of Harpswood as a marker of a sort of Anglo-Saxon motorway…

A misplaced meeting-place

The place-names of Shropshire also demonstrate other kinds of administration as well as transport routes. Overs Hundred was one of the ancient divisions of Shropshire. Hundreds often take their names from meeting-places, but the meeting-place for Overs has never been found. Margaret Gelling wrote in the first volume of the Shropshire survey, “There is a hundredal division called Overs in the S.E. of the county. The meeting-place has not been located but must have been at a place also called Ofer.” (p. 232)

During the Shropshire project, a good candidate for this lost meeting-place was found. It’s a place now called The Novers, in Caynham parish, which is in Stottesdon Hundred. Stottesdon Hundred grew in the late medieval and early modern periods, absorbing land that used to be in Overs Hundred. Caynham parish is one of the places which used to be in Overs.


Map showing the layout of late medieval / early modern hundreds in Shropshire, with the position of The Novers marked by a black dot. At this time, it’s on the boundary between Overs and Stottesdon Hundreds.

The place-name The Novers was Novers in 1595-6, and the Novers in 1773. In the Middle English period, words would often be misdivided, and The Novers actually comes from the Old English word *ofer, meaning ‘hill-spur’. In the Middle English period this would have been written ‘at then Ofers’, and it’s easy to see how that becomes ‘at the Novers’.

The Novers is in a perfect place to be a meeting-place for a whole hundred. It’s on a parish boundary and a later hundred-boundary, which means it’s a good place for people from different areas to meet. It’s also on a hill (as the name tells us), which means it’s a visible landmark that people can’t easily miss.


The Shropshire project has built on the long-standing collaboration between Margaret Gelling, George Foxall, and many dedicated local volunteers. It’s now providing many new and exciting place-name interpretations, just a few snippets of which are shown above.



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