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What's in a name ? - Part 1

Updated: May 19, 2021

This month we're taking a look at the street and house names in Denham Village and their historical connections. Part I at the beginning of May takes us as far as Wrango and in Part II later this month, we'll head on to Misbourne Cottage - with a surprise in store about Denham Place.

The history of street names

The naming of roads and streets in England is a very old practice. For example a charter of the year 909 mentions three named streets in Winchester - Þa cëap stræt (‘market street’) flæscmangererestræt (‘street of the butchers’), scyldwyrtenastræt (‘street of the shield-makers’). But as with so many other things, there are only a few records until after the document obsessed Normans started recording everything about the country they had invaded and taken over in 1066. The Winchester example at least tells us what inspired street naming in towns and cities - trade, clear indicators of where different traders could be found.

The inspiration for the Norman documentation was evidently to identify and itemise the treasures they had secured by the conquest of Anglo-Saxon lands. William the Conqueror made great use of his newly acquired power to reward his friends and supporters and by his rather cynical generosity to secure their continued support and their enthusiasm to deter any hint of subversion and rebellion.

The practice of naming thoroughfares by reference to trades continued and new names were added to signify other activities. The famous Pall Mall in London for example is named for the ancient form of croquet called paille-maille which was played there. Churches might give their names to the streets on which they stood, great national events were celebrated for example in Trafalgar Square recalling Nelson's victory in 1805. The occupants of Pudding Lane where the Great Fire of London began in 1666 rejoiced not in having a wholesome bakery on their doorsteps but rather covered their noses against the stench of butcher's refuse.

Not until the 18th century, as the populations of towns grew and with that growth the need for remote communications, was it appreciated that it would be useful to know where people actually lived on a town street. Street numbering began to appear early in that century and in 1765 the Postage Act stimulated the idea that homes built in a town or city should have a number followed by a street name.

Even then the numbering was, to say the least, haphazard and it was not until the Towns Improvement Clauses Act of 1847, that a more regular system was introduced and then only to specifically identified towns and cities progressively around the country. It was as late as 1925 before the modern system of naming streets and attaching numbers to the properties on those streets and other thoroughfares.

Today's priorities are the efficiency of the postal system and ensuring that the emergency services can speedily identify where they are needed when called. The postcode system put into effect across the UK between 1959 and 1974 has helped to secure that need, (though Amazon and DPD and other delivery drivers often pause to ask for directions) and street numbering has still not been applied to most of Denham Village. With the exception of the properties on Priory Close and Lindsey Road and a few properties on Cheapside Lane, every house is named.

Long before 1765, members of the landed gentry who for various reasons wanted to be found had adopted the practice of their castle owning noble forerunners by giving names to their grand houses and manorial properties. Denham Place and Denham Court Mansion, both late 17th century properties, provide examples of the trend which spread during the following two centuries to more modest but still substantial houses.

Denham streets, road lanes and tracks

The census reporters throughout the 19th century and in the early years of the 20th up to 1911 did not recognise Village Road. Other than those which were identified by their names, the houses were simply referred to as being in The Village. Cheapside Lane retained its name of many centuries past but the road we know now as Old Mill Road did not appear other than as a track across the fields of Andrews Farm until the late 1890s and then simply took the very unoriginal title New Road. Ashmead Lane was a similarly unoriginal Back Lane or sometime Love Lane - the latter no doubt for very obvious reasons.

The village also once had two streets that we no longer acknowledge. Brook Street, named no doubt for the stretch of the River Misbourne which runs across the meadows behind the village, was a narrow lane next to what we know now as The Old Store. Remarkably over twenty dwellings were packed tightly into this passage housing many local agricultural workers and their families together with the village shoe mender.

Then off Village Road alongside the churchyard up to the gate onto Lime Avenue there was Church Road with its five cottages including that of the 13 member Springle family, the youngest, who became Annie but was still unnamed on census day 1881, just six days old.

New names have been added in the 20th century. Old Mill Road leads of course to the Old Mill as it turns towards the village at the bridge opposite The Priory. The name Ashmead Lane has replaced Back Lane and Ashmead Drive and Mead Close have been added all taking their names from the meadow land on which they were built.

Already, in mentioning these names, we can see that there are so many different words used to describe the paths we walk, ride and drive. There are roads, streets, lanes, drives, closes, ways and tracks and we've not touched on boulevards, avenues and crescents. Being strict about it a "road" connects two places and a lane is a small version of a road. A street is a road which has buildings on either side. A "way" is passage leading away from a road or street, a "drive" which is normally winding gives access to dwellings and a "close" is a cul-de-sac, a closed off passage again normally providing access to dwellings. A "track" is of course no more than a well trodden way across the fields used either as a walkway or to move farm machinery.

So with these definitions, Village Road is actually a street, Old Mill Road is partly a street and Cheapside Lane is by no means a lane. Of course building development has changed the character of these thoroughfares long after they acquired their names. Few if anyone would have them changed, so let's not be strict about it.

Market street ?

"Cheapside" is particularly interesting. Until the 1860s, like its famous London City namesake, it seems to have been just Cheapside, the word "Lane" being added perhaps because of the increasingly widespread implications of the 1847 legislation.

The name derives from the old Anglo-Saxon word "cëap" meaning "market" and that takes the origins of Cheapside Lane a very long way back, perhaps even longer than is generally thought. Most histories refer to the licence given in 1227 by King Henry III allowing local landowner Henry de Capella to hold a market and fair in the village. However Henry III had a habit of cancelling previously existing charter licences before reinstating them once satisfied that they met his conditions. So it could be that the King's charter of 1227 was a restored version of an earlier charter. If so, the first licensed market in Denham predated even the Norman invasion in 1066. At least the grant of the charter may have coincided with the dedication of St. Mary's Church in Denham sometime around around 1100. Could it be that the car park of The King stands on the site of a very early medieval market ?

Houses and meadows

On Old Mill Road opposite the junction with Ashmead Lane there are four cottages built in 1894 when the "New Road" replaced a track across the fields almost certainly to rehouse the workers on Old Andrews Farm, the large area of farmland which once bordered Court Farm and stretched all the way to the Grand Union Canal, the Lea and the Oxford Road. The origin of the name Andrews Farm is unknown but must be assumed to refer to its owner.

Two of these cottages have been renamed but the other two retain their original names of "Blackbarn", a name easily traced to the old black barn of Andrews Farm which once stood on the site of the Catholic Church of the Holy Name and which in later years house the splendid carriages hired out by Mr. Fryer for weddings and other celebratory events.

Opposite the Blackbarn Cottages, in what is in reality a private close - Baconsmead. It is named for the owner of the orchard on which the several houses were built. He was architect Francis Bacon patriarch of a long established Denham family whose ancestry could be traced back to his namesake the 16th century Elizabethan philosopher, statesman and essayist.

Moving on down Old Mill Road, passing Swandane (the valley of the swans) and Hancock's Mead, no doubt named for its long forgotten owner, on one side and by the bridge are Weller's Mead, Mill House and The Priory.

There is no certainty about the owner of the meadow attributed to Weller, but there was certainly an old Denham family name of Wheler dating back to the 14th century and only lost to the area in the late 19th. The Priory has given its name to the neighbouring covert (a thicket where the game birds hide) and to the nearby Priory Close, but today’s building was not itself a Priory. It stands on the site of a retreat for members of the clergy to escape from London in medieval times when the lands of the village were owned by the Abbey of Westminster. Today’s building was built in 1789 by the then lord of the manor, Sir William Bowyer to house the village’s deserving poor and their warden. For a while in the mid 20th century, it served as the village rectory until it was converted into an “enchanting” family home by the film producer Norman Gerard.

The naming of The Mill House needs no explanation as it stands on the River Misbourne which once turned the wheel of the old flour mill. So too River Lodge needs no explanation.

The Court Farm buildings, now stylishly designed residences, once comprised the cottages, barns and granary for the farmlands which were converted in the 1990s into the Buckinghamshire Golf Course. The golf house is of course the house that was once the grand home of the Bowyer family, the Denham Court Mansion.

The imposing Tudor style house which has replaced the three bedroomed cottage next to the Court Farm buildings has nonetheless retained the name Holtye - but the origins of the name are obscure. In old English the word signifies a small hollow, a low wooded area or copse. It may once have been that, but the land on which Holtye stands is hardly that now.

There is however a curious coincidence. The mid 20th century owners and occupiers of Denham Place, the village dignitaries of their time, were Sir Robert, 1st Baron, Vansittart and Lady Vansittart. Amongst Sir Robert’s late 19th century ancestors was Rose Sophia Vansittart, first wife of Oswald Smith a banker who in 1892 memorialised Rose Sophia in the rebuilding of Saint Peter’s church in the village of Holtye in Sussex. The connection is obviously remote and the idea speculative, but a coincidence worth a mention.

As with other properties in the village, the naming of The White House is self evident, but that is not the only name by which it has been known. In the mid 19th century the homestead on that property claimed the title which placed it then at the heart of the community, simply Denham Cottage. Later referencing the trees in its expansive gardens, it became The Cedars and after it changed hands in 1919 it became “Brook” again referencing that stretch of The Misbourne. It was however, by 1933, The White House, though it is not the first house in the village of the name - but more of that later

The gardens of The Cedars extended well beyond the present boundaries of The White House property and through a series of transactions amongst the local landowners land on the opposite side of Village Road was included in the estate. That included the two cottages, Cedar Cottage and Cedar Tree, now of course privately owned, which recall the former name of The White House itself.

Fayrstede, now just one cottage, was four cottages when the photo here was taken in 1899. Its name in old English means the place where the fair took place, but the property appears to have acquired the name only in the early 20th or late 19th century. A document from 1935 identifies its former name as "Misbourne" acknowledging that the owners of the property once had the benefit of an expanse of land across Village Road all the way down to the river. So perhaps it is the case that someone researched the history of the village and discovered that the land on which Fayrstede stands was held as long ago as 1329 by Thomas de Fayrstede.

Though the frontage of The White Cottage isn't white, the origin of the name it has now is not obscure. However when the artists William Nicholson and Mabel Pryde moved in there in 1893 it had still the intriguing name of the beer house it had once been, The Eight Bells. That naming followed the practice of identifying pubs in close proximity to churches by reference to the number of bells which call the parishioners to prayer - and sure enough St. Mary's Church has eight bells.

And then we come to the village’s most enigmatic house name - Wrango.

The name has appeared in census reports at times as “Rango”. That may have been a clerical error - though the probate document of William Sedgwicke dated November 1767 does also omit the “W”. For most of its history its full name has been Wrango Hall, but the word “Hall” was dropped by Jay and Margaret Ashbrook when they bought the property in 1952. It seems it is now to be revived.

It is William Sedgwicke, his surname having that slightly unusual spelling, who provides us with just a small hint of how Wrango, or Rango, got its name.

Rango is a small community in the Indian State of Himachal Pradesh in the foothills of the Himalayas. It is an area which lays claim to the fictional Shangri-La invented by James Hilton in novel Lost Horizons. Hilton imagined Shangri-La as a beautiful paradise far away where all is pleasant. For James Hilton and his readers it was the most beautiful place on earth. Many homes have been named after it since Hilton wrote in 1933.

On 10th June 1748 Elizabeth Susannah Sedgwicke was born to Elizabeth and William in the Bombay Presidency of the East India Company. Was this the same William Sedgwicke who died at Rango Hall in 1767 after a working career spent in India ? Did he perhaps travel in the Himalayas finding it so beautiful that he named his house in Denham after Rango on his return ? Is Wrango Hall in fact William Sedgwicke’s personal Shanghai-La ? It is nothing more than a possible solution to an otherwise insoluble enigma.

Later this month: continuing to trace village names. What for example is a Pyghtle, who was Walter the Abbott, has Denham Place always had that name and how is it linked to Napoleon ?

And much more...


Cheapside from Neil Watson's collection

Fayrstede 1899 - thanks to Julie Williams

Himalaya photo by Suket Dedhia from Pexels


South Bucks District Council Denham Conservation Area Character Appraisal September 2008

Documents of Philip and Irene Courtenay-Luck

Interview with Julie Williams September 2019


Wikimedia Commons

The History of Denham Bucks by the Reverend R.H. Lathbury 1904

National Archives

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