Heritage: The importance of the letter N in Havering history

The Wright's Bridge in Noak Hill in about 1890. Picture: Brian Evans

The Wright's Bridge in Noak Hill in about 1890. Picture: Brian Evans - Credit: Brian Evans

Prof Ged Martin examines how a pushy letter has muscled into Havering place names

This week’s heritage column is about the letter N.

No, I’m serious. The letter N has an aggressive track record in Havering history.

It’s a letter that tends to attach itself to the front of words starting with a vowel.

In earlier centuries, many people were known by an unofficial pet name. This was called an eke-name, from the archaic word “eke”, meaning extra.

Gradually this became a neke-name, and then a nickname.

Oliver Cromwell was Noll. Girls called Eleanor sometimes became Nelly.

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We preserve the old version of the word “at” in Havering-atte-Bower. It was probably pronounced like “at-a-boy!”, not “attee”, leaving an awkward gap if the next word began with a vowel.

Enter the letter N.

Rising ground in northern Havering was covered with oak trees.

By 1490, it was called Noak Hill (atte-n-oak).

The same process happened to a clump of elm trees near a farm in Emerson Park.

By 1339, its owner was recorded as Semannus atte Nelmes. Nelmes Way preserves this atte-n-elms form.

Havering people remembered that in the thirteenth century, the earls of Arundel had owned a property between Harold Hill and Collier Row. Officially called Earls – yes, you’ve guessed it – by 1627 it was known as Nerles. It’s now called Upper Bedfords.

Similarly, the surname Nash indicated somebody who lived at the ash tree.

But you shouldn’t believe every intrusion alleged against the letter N.

In 1631, an absurd story was recorded that St Andrew’s church in Hornchurch had been built by a former prostitute to atone for her sins.

Shocked to hear it called “Whore Church”, a passing king ordered the insertion of the letter N, and fixed horns to the chancel (they’re still there) to underline its new name, Hornchurch. Total nonsense!

The letter N has been around for centuries in Dagenham. An early charter, issued in 695 AD, names the place as Daeccanham – the farm of a man called Daecca. The hard C gradually changed to a G.

Actually, the presence of the letter N is fair enough. Anglo-Saxon, the forerunner of English, had case endings, like Latin. That final N represented the genitive, the possessive that we now indicate by adding apostrophe-S.

Sometime around 1330, a Dagenham man brought his axe and his surname (de Dakenham) to Harold Hill, where he cleared woodland, creating what is now Dagnam Park.

The name was shortened, but the N clung on.

Something similar happened at Cranham. In 1086, Domesday Book called it Craohu, probably the “hoe” (or ridge) of the crows. By 1397, this was Crawenham, the N indicating the possessive (“crows’ ridge”), and “ham” meaning a farm replacing the then-forgotten word “hoe”.

The poor old crows were smothered by the cuckoo letter N. By 1486, the village had become Cranham.

Domesday Book also records a lost village between Upminster and Aveley, under the Latin name of Kelituna – probably Kellington, named after a Saxon called Cylla.

By 1291, confusion with nearby Wennington had made it “Kennyngton”.

Bureaucrats assumed that it belonged to somebody from the Kennington that’s home to the Oval cricket ground, and added an S. Today, Kenningtons is the name of a school in Aveley.

Further afield, in 894 AD Benfleet was “Beamfleote”, the creek of the tree trunk. By 1068, the letter N was shouldering its way in. It even passed itself off as “bend-fleet”. Cheeky!

The letter N hasn’t always been as aggressive as here in Havering.

Our word “apron” was originally “napron”, related to “napery”, the posh word for tablecloths. A napron became an apron.

The same thing happened to the poisonous snake called a nadder.

We’ve one local example of this. Between 1221 and 1297, much of Upminster belonged to a family called Engayne. The first syllable disappeared, and 800 years later, Corbets Tey has roads and a school called Gaynes.