Devon Place Names


The names of places, from towns to outlying farms, throw a good deal I of light on the early settlement of the county. One striking fact, in an area which the English occupied comparatively late, is that very few names of Celtic origin survive. Those which are wholly British are shown on the map, as are those containing the element ‘Wal’ from the Saxon ‘Wealas’ for Welsh or Britons. This shortage sup­ports the probability that Devon was thinly popu­lated when the Saxons came, though in some cases they may have renamed existing settlements. Dawlish and Whimple derive their names from local streams, and may not themselves be of British origin.

Even river names are less generally Celtic than, for example, in Dorset, though most of the large rivers and some thirty streams keep their pre-Saxon titles. Axe and Exe mean simply ‘water’, and Avon ‘river’; and other names are mostly descriptive of the stream or its valley, such as ‘swift-flowing’, ‘shin­ing’, ‘winding’, ‘elm-bordered’. Walla Brook near Buckfast is the ‘Welshmen’s stream’.

One of the commonest ways of distinguishing a new settlement was to call it by the name of the owner of founder, with some suffix meaning ‘farm’ (or, less commonly, ‘hill’, ‘valley’, etc.). Nearly all such start with a Saxon personal name, and common suffixes are -ton (enclosure, hence farmstead), -cot(t) or cote (outlying farm), -ham (homestead), -worthy (farm), -leigh or -ley (wood or clearing), -week or -wick (stock farm, hamlet). -beare or -bere (wood), and -barton (literally corn-farm, but generally ap­plied to the chief farm in a locality). The suffixes -cott and -worthy are distinctive of the poorer north­ern soils, where there were more isolated farms, but they are probably also a local fashion brought in by immigrants from Somerset. In the south-east -hay or -hayne (hedge, hence enclosure, farm) is common, and shows connections with West Dorset. Names for natural features are combe (valley), berry, don, and tor (hill), venn (fen, marsh), and cleeve (cliff or steep slope). Also frequent are bury (earthwork, some­times later confused with berry), stow (holy place), and buckland (land granted by ‘book’ or title-deed). The spread of -cott and -worthy names into North Cornwall and the North Petherwin area, shown on the map, is evidence for early English settlement beyond the Tamar.

Devon Place Names

The Vikings left no place-names in Devon (if we exclude Lundy – ‘puffin isle’), but a few Anglo­Danish personal names appear later in Cnut’s time. Norman influence is seen mainly in the addition of the names of manorial lords: Churston Ferrers, for example, is Churchtown which belongs to the ‘ Ferrers family. Other double names arose from the need to distinguish places with the same name, or to show ownership by Church or King. Examples are Mary Tavy and Peter Tavy, both named from the river on which they stand but distinguished by adding the church dedication, and Kingskerswell and Abbotskerswell.

Place-names have often changed in form over the years, and to discover the original meaning it is necessary to search early documents. In the follow­ing lists the originals are given where they noticeably differ;. and names of Celtic origin are marked ‘C’.


Place-names Derived from:

(a) Personal Names

Alfardisworthy (Alfheard)

Alston – Alfameston (Alfhelm)

Alverdiscott – Alvredescot (Alfred) Babbacombe (Babba)

Bittadon (bitta)

Branscombe – Brancmumbc (Doc C)

Brixham (Brioc – C)

Burrington – Bernington (Beorn)

Chulmleigh – Cholmundeslegh (Ceolmund)

Croscombe – Craddokescumb (Caradoc – C)

Iddesleigh – Edwieslegh (Edwig)

Ilfracombe – Alferthingcomb (Alfred)

Kennerleigh – Kenewardlegh (Cyneward)

Knowstone – Cnutstan (Cnut)

Martinhoe – Mattingho (Matta)

Offwell (Offa)

Paignton (Paga)

Topsham (Topp)

Totnes (Totta)

Ugborough – Uggabergh (Ucga)

Werrington – Wulfredington (Wulfred)

Woolfardisworthy – Wulfrideswurthi (Wulfheard)

Worlington – Wulfrington (Wulfhere)

(b) Natural Features or Vegetation

Bradninch – Bradeneche (broad ash-tree)

Braunton (farm in the broom)

Brentor (steep hill)

Calverleigh – Caiwoodley (clearing in the bare wood)

Challacombe – Cheldecombe (cold valley)

Chittlehampton (farm in the hollow)

Clannaborough – Clovenberge (cleft hill)

Dalwood (wood in the valley)

Farringdon – Ferndon (fern hill)

Hatherleigh (hawthorn wood)

Horwood (grey wood)

Huntshaw – Hunishawe (honey wood)

Kelly (grove, C)

Kerswell (cress stream)

Marwood – Merewode (boundary wood)

Modbury – Motberie (moot hill)

Morchard Morchet (great wood, C)

Nympton – Nemeton (sacred grove, C, but may also derive from R. Yeo, formerly Nymet)

Pencuit – Pencoyt (wood on the hill, C)

Pilton (farm by the creek)

Prawle – Prahulle (lookout hill)

Roborough – Raweberga (rough hill) Salcombe – Saltcumb (salt valley)

Shebbear – Sceftbeara (spear-shaft wood)

Shirwell (clear stream)

Sourton – Swurantum (farm by the pass)

Warne – Wagefenne (quaking bog)

(c) Man -made Features or Farming

Anzy (path up the hill)

Barnstapic – bardanstapol (Bearda’s post – marking


Charles – Charnis (chief’s hail on the rock, C cam liss)

Charleton – Cherleton (ceorl’s farm) Cheriton (settlement by the church) Choiwich – Chaldeswich (coldest farm) Countisbury (fort on the hill, C cunet)

Denbury – Devenabury (fort of the Dumnonii, with

m to f1v mutation)

Dunchideock (hill-fort in the wood, C) Filleigh – Fillelegh (hay clearing) Forches Cross (gallows cross-roads) Hembury (high fort)

Huish (land of one household)

Powderham – Poidraham (farm on the polder, reclaimed land)

Salterton – Saltemn (salt pans)

Shilston – Schilveston (shelf-stone, cromlech) Slapton (slippery farm)

Sticklepath (steep path)

Teignhead – Tynhide (ten hides) Theibmidge (plank bridge)

Twitchen (cross-roads)

Whitcombe – Wetecomb (wheat valley)

(d) Animals or Birds

Chawleigh – Chelvelegh (calves’ clearing)

Cornwood (crane wood)

Crebom – Crewebeare (crow wood)

Rockbeare – Rokebeme (rook wood)

Staddon – Stotdune (bullocks’ hill)

Taddiport (toad town -nickname?)

Warkleigh – Waferkelegh (spider wood) Withemidge (wethers’ ridge)

Wolborough – Wulveberg (wolves’ hill)

Yarnscombe – Ernescumbe (eagles’ valley)

Yes Tor – Emnestorre (eagles’ hill)

(e) Rivers and Fords

Bideford (Byda’s ford)

Cullompton – Culumtune (settlement on the Culm) Dawlish – Doflisc (black water, C)

Diptford – Depeford (deep ford)

Exeter – Escanceaster (‘chester’ on the Exe – C Isca)

Hemyock (ever-flowing stream, C)

Okehampton – Ockmundtun (settlement on the Okement)

Poppleford (pebble ford)

Shobroke – Shokebrook (elves’ brook)

Stowford – Staveford (staked ford)

Tiverton – Twyfyrde (two fords)

Torrington (settlement on the Torridge)

Whimple (white pool, C)

(f) Churches and Holy Places

Bridestowe (shrine of St Brigid)

Halwill – Halgewille (holy well)

Instow – Jonestow (shrine of St John)

Landkey (church of St Cai, C)