Origins of Devon Place-Names


Madalene Frost

Great Barrier Island, New Zealand

The following is based on material in "Devonshire", by D St Leger-Gordon, County Books series, Robert Hale publishers, 1950.

Devon locals as much as newcomers are responsible for different rendering of names that were originally identical. The most common of dialectic changes that has been retained, is the insertion of the vowels a, i, or e into place names which did not originally or correctly contain them. Old Devon dialect spoke of Dartymoor and Chagyford, and though these were not adopted in writing, others were, such as Widecombe, pronounced widdycum (wide combe), Sharpitor, (sharp tor), Maddaford, Westaway (west way), Reddaway (red way), Wonnacott, Westacott, Ellacott and Endacott (end cot).

Many Devon names are in effect, word pictures of the past, from when the earliest Damnonian [Devon tribe of Britons] colonisers, Saxon, Celt or even Neolithic people laboured with primitive tools to create a small plot for a dwelling, from the thickly forested countryside,. 'Cote' is one of the commonest suffixes of Devon names. It described the first small and humble dwelling of eg, a hunter or swineherd. Cots and cotes are still mainly associated with farms which were the enlargements of the first little plots, and also led to the surnames of their first inhabitants. For example, Nethercott - the cot at the fringes of a parish; Yendicott meaning yonder cots, and identical to the more usual Endicott

The original wooded nature of Devon has led to place names from the Anglo Saxon 'beuru' for a wood or grove - beares, beres, and beers. Places thus named were originally woody places. Surnames such as Connibeare stem from association with woody places.

Following on from the isolated cot came the more ambitious 'worthig'- Saxon for a small-holding. It survives in the names ending 'worthy', particularly in North Devon. The worthy was a one family farm as compared to the community settlement or 'tun', leading to 'ton' and 'don', meaning a town. About 600 of the early 'tuns' survive in place names such as Seaton (town by the sea), Crediton (settlement by the Credy), Cheriton (church farm). The preceding of 'ton' by 'ing' as in Alphington and Kilmington, denotes a rather more important homestead, approaching the manor type, although the manor proper came later.

The Domesday survey of 1086 'booked' (recorded) by charter under the king, lands held by knights, barons, or church bodies. These were the 'boclands' known now as Bucklands - 20 or so of them, although the more obvious modern interpretation of these has been 'lands of buck or deer'. The boclands were smaller estates than the actual manors, although a 'sele' - hall of residence - might be erected on them, leading to names such as Zeal Monachorum (house of monks), and South Zeal.

The next higher degree of estate was the 'wic', which was a nobleman's house or manor. In its numerous variations of 'week', 'wyke', 'wick', and 'wyche' it is encountered in most parts of the county. These names are often asssociated with farms which have significant features proclaiming them as important dwellings in the past.

Attached to the sele or wic was the 'barton', an enclosed courtyard in which were housed ricks [for hay] and general stores associated with farming. Barton has survived as the name of homesteads all over Devon.

'Stowes' are ususally connected with saints. 'Leighs' are clearings. So Buckfastleigh is the old ley or pasturage of the abbey, and Gidleigh, the clearing of Gytha or Gydda, probably King Harold's mother who was one of the biggest landowners in eleventh century Devon.

The Saxons were responsible for agricultural development in Devon, so the few remaining Celtic words are those of natural landscape - hills, valleys, and in particular rivers. The celtic word for water, 'ta' gives rise to Tamar, Tavy, Taw and possibly Torridge and Teign. 'Dwr' gives rise to Dart, and means oak tree river (same root as for Derwent). 'Yeo' stems from Anglo Saxon 'ea'- stream. 'Clyst' is clear. 'Walla' and 'Walkham' may come from the Celtic 'huella' - workings associated with tin streaming, or from the Anglo Saxon 'wielle' meaning a spring.

'Tor' is probably a Celto-Saxon formation from the Welsh 'twr' and Saxon 'torr' - a high rocky outcrop. While 'Dun' is the Celtic word for a hill and gave its name to the tribe of the Dunmonia - a description of the hilly nature of Devon, the word Devon itself comes from the Celtic Dyfnaint - the land of deep valleys.

'Coombe', a valley, the most common suffix after 'tun', derives from the Welsh 'cwm' and Saxon 'cumb'. 'Cleave' is from the Anglo Saxon 'cleof' - cliff, though it later came to refer to the valley floor below the cliff above.

Few Roman and Norse names persist, although Exeter is the Roman Exsceastre and Lundy (the isle of puffins), Fingle and Becka (Becky stream and falls, near Manaton) all have Nordic roots.

Nine hundred manors existed in Devon at the end of Domesday survey. Most of their names are of post conquest date, ie 1066+. Royal manors are prefixed by 'Kings', as in Kingskerswell, or by reference to ecclesiastical bodies such as Bishopsteignton, Newton Abbot and Abbotskerswell. 'Dean', as in Dean Prior however is more likely to be related to the Saxon word for a valley. The three 'Sampfords' (sandy ford over the river adjacent to the particular manor) - Courtenay, Peverell and Spiney, are examples of medieval manorial names of the feudal owners. Similarly for the Raleigh and Pomeroy estates.

While the larger proportion of Devon surnames come from place-names there are also the occupational names, such as Tucker, Weaver, Webber, and Woolcombe. Few names have however survived which stem from the tinning and mining industries.

Devonians have changed their own and others names with great alacrity over the years, thus variants in names are more common in Devon than possibly in other counties. Good luck in tracing the roots of yours!

Brian Randell, 2 Nov 2014