How Some of London’s most popular areas and boroughs got their name

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Ever wondered how some of London’s most popular districts and boroughs got their names?

We have already looked into the history of London street names, so let’s jump in and take a look at the history of some of London’s most popular areas and boroughs.

Vauxhall

Mention of Vauxhall these days will likely conjure up images of espionage since it is the well-known home of MI6 but the area has more to its history than this.

The name is thought to date back to the reign of King John when one of his knights Falkes de Breauté owned a substantial property in the region. The house was known as Faulkes Hall and later on was referred to as Foxhall, eventually ending up as the familiar Vauxhall we know today with the opening of The Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens, which drew large crowds from all walks of life. Initially named The New Sprig Gardens, the popular attraction gets a mention form Pepys as early as 1662 when people would approach it via the River Thames until the erection of Westminster Bridge in the mid-1700s. The gardens closed in 1859 but the name has stuck.

Millbank

Modern Millbank is of course home to an array of Government buildings including the MI5 headquarters at Thames House as well as the Tate Britain, but this busy Central London thoroughfare wasn’t always the hub of activity we know it for today.

Rewind to 1573 to find Elizabeth I seated on the throne and Norden’s Survey informs us that nestled close to the water’s edge of The Thames in close proximity to present day College Green, is a watermill which is the property of Westminster Abbey. It is this simple mill the area takes its name from.

Diarist Samuel Pepys made reference to the area also, it seemed to be known then as Tothill Fields and was known for its low-lying marshy landscape and plague pits.

Later on in the latter part of the 1800s, the imposing Millbank Prison would be built in the locality. It is said that the entrance to the prison was located where today art lovers enter the Tate Britain.

Westminster

The site of Westminster Abbey as we know it today was once home to St Peter’s Abbey, So named because a fisherman named Aldrich was plying his trade on the Thames when he was said to have had a vision of the saint close to the site. The Abbey became home to Benedictine Monks and records date back to as early as 960.

Later, Edward the Confessor; who was among the last of the Anglo-Saxon Kings and was renowned for his piety, had the abbey rebuilt between 1042 and 1052, expressing a wish for a church fit for royal interment. A few years after completion of the works the abbey was consecrated in December of 1065. Edward did not have to wait long for his final wish to come to pass, he died just one week later and was buried in the abbey in January 1066. His queen followed him nine years later.

Abbeys being known as minsters in medieval times, this particular example was built to the West of Roman London, hence the name Westminster.

Of course, Westminster is also the seat of government, dating back to 1200.

Islington

Famed today for its café culture this much sought-after vibrant area of North London was originally named Giseldone in 1005 by the Saxons, later becoming Gislandune in 1062. The name means Gīsla’s hill in old English and is likely derived from the surname of Gīsla and the word dun, meaning hill down. As is often the case, the name altered over time and became known as Isledon, remaining so into the 17th century, followed by the name we know today. The region was in medieval times one of many small manors in the locality. Others included Bernersbury, Neweton Berewe or Hey-bury and Canonesbury. These names may sound familiar too, today we know them as them Barnsbury, Highbury and Canonbury.

Charing Cross

Hopping on a train at bustling Charing Cross railway station you may not have time to give much thought as to how it came to be known as such.

Situated at the busy junction of The Strand, Whitehall, and Cockspur Street and set to the South of Trafalgar Square, Charing Cross was once just a small hamlet situated at a bend in the river Thames, indeed the word Charing has its roots in the old English word cierring, meaning bend. Originally the locality was known only as Charing; the Cross was later added with the erection by Edward I of a cross at the site, in memory of his queen Eleanor of Castile. Devastated by her death, Edward had such crosses erected all along the funeral route from Lincoln to denote each point the procession stopped off on its way to London. The final cross was situated at the hamlet of Charing. While three original crosses remain, a Victorian replacement stands outside Charing Cross station today.

Waterloo 

Situated in the old parish of Lambeth, Waterloo was an area of boggy marshland much like Millbank across the river and was referred to as Lambeth Marsh. The marsh was drained during the 18th century and Lower Marsh Street in the vicinity is just one reminder today of what was once to be found there.

Now part of London’s borough of Lambeth, the area connects conveniently to The Strand via Waterloo Bridge and it is the bridge that gives the area its name. During the now famous battle of the same name, a bridge was already under construction on home soil with plans to name it The Strand Bridge, but Napoleon’s defeat on the Belgium battlefield prompted calls for the new bridge to be renamed to commemorate the victory, and so the decision was taken to call it Waterloo Bridge and the surrounding area also came to be known by the same name. The train station came later and was named after the bridge.

The name itself is derived from the Middle Dutch language spoken in the region of the original Waterloo. Water having the same meaning as it does in the English language, and Loo meaning forest. This is because the Belgium town is situated in a forest by a river.

Victoria

You may have guessed this one. The central London district in Westminster is named after the long-reigning Queen of the same name, as so many other places are.

A rather well-to-do area now, Victoria was once part of the parish of St George Hanover Square and was a notorious slum housing some of society’s most deprived impoverished individuals. It was referred to by Charles Dickens as Devil’s Acre, a part of which was demolished to create what we recognise today as Victoria Street. When it was constructed, the thoroughfare ripped through the slum, displacing hundreds of people already living in abject poverty.

Victoria Street was opened in 1851 to great fanfare, with a procession taking place from Westminster Abbey to the site of today’s Victoria railway station.

The opening prompted one official to remark upon the improvement of the area, stating it had previously been a hole of impurity, infested with the worst kind of filth.

Paddington

We would love to tell you that Paddington gets its name from the much loved Peruvian Bear, but alas no. The Bear is named after the train station in the area at which he was found.

There is some uncertainty about this one but we can speculate. One theory is that the name is derived from Padre-ing-tun, which means father’s meadow village. Another suggestion from Victorian Anglo-Saxon scholar John Mitchell Kemble was that the name came from Pæding-tun, meaning village of the race of Pæd.

A favoured theory is that the area was named after an Anglo-Saxon landowner called Padda or something similar, with ton/tun meaning village of.

Piccadilly Circus

At the heart of theatreland, this bustling junction is known the world over for its bright lights if nothing else.  The name appears first as Piccadilly Hall as far back as 1626, when it was the residence of one Robert Baker. Baker was a tailor selling the then popular piccadills, or Piccadilly shirt collars.

By 1692 the road is referred to as Portugal Street to honour the Queen Consort of King Charles II Catherine of Braganza, but by 1743 it is generally called Piccadilly.

Piccadilly Circus comes into existence in 1819 when the construction of Regent Street is underway in accordance with Architect John Nash’s plans. Nash was building on the former home and gardens of Lady Hutton. At around 1858 the area had a brief stint as Regent’s Circus. In 1886 the construction of Shaftsbury Avenue put an end to the circular form it originally had.

St James’s Park

Purchased by Henry VIII as an addition to the then York Palace (later to become Whitehall Palace) this marshland was ordered drained and landscaped when King James I came to the throne, he then used it to house an array of exotic creatures.

The 57-acre site took its name from a nearby leper hospital which was dedicated to St James the Less.

St James’s is the oldest of the London Royal Parks and is surrounded by no less than three royal residences, Buckingham Palace, St James’s Palace and Clarence House.

Leicester Square

Starting out as an upmarket address, Leicester Square was home only to those from the upper rungs of London society.

Taking its name from Leicester House, which once occupied part of the site and was the residence of the 2nd Earl of Leicester Robert Sidney, the square has been home to some other famous residents. Artists Joshua Reynolds and William Hogarth lived there, as did Frederick Prince of Wales.

With the latter part of the 18th century came the demolition of Leicester House leading to the area’s eventual decline. Retail sites began to spring up and the locality became more synonymous with entertainment, as it remains so today.

Notting Hill

Incorporated into Notting Hill are Notting Hill Gate, Ladbroke Grove, Westbourne Grove, Portobello Road, Westbourne Green, and North Kensington. The now-trendy district is situated in Kensington and Chelsea and part of its neighbouring Westminster borough.

This diverse, cosmopolitan district is known the world over; due in no small part to the hit film Notting Hill and of course, The Notting Hill Carnival, for its rich and famous residents, including The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge whose official residence of Kensington Palace is in the area.

Notting Hill wasn’t always the magnet for wealth that is today though, in fact, this is a relatively recent turn of events. Much of it was until the 1980s very deprived, housing many from Caribbean, Irish, Spanish, and other immigrant communities who rented rooms in the districts many substantial but rundown properties.  The 1980s saw redevelopment of such properties on a large scale, and many locals were priced out or moved to the less popular parts of the area as a result. Notting Hill was also home to one John Reginald Christie, the infamous serial killer who lived at 10 Rillington Place, along with the remains of his unfortunate victims.

Going farther back, Notting Hill was once nothing more than a humble hamlet in rural Middlesex up until the 19th-century expansion on London.

It is unclear where the name comes from, but the area is referred to as Knottynhull in the Patent Rolls and appears as Knotting-Bernes, Knutting-Barnes, and Nutting Barns in other old texts. There remains today a Notting Barn Road within the district. Notting Barn was thought to be one of many farms in the locality.

Notting Hill Gate itself was a known as the Kensington gravel pits, with a rural pathway called Green’s Lane (now Portobello Road) connecting it to Kensal Green to the North.

Portobello Farm was situated in modern-day Golborne and Portobello Roads, with other farming land sited where St Charles Hospital now stands.

The arrival of the railways in 1864 saw Portobello Farm sold off to Dominican Nuns who erected St Joseph’s Convent. This stood until as recently as 1986. A housing estate now stands on the site in St Joseph’s Close, situated just off Portobello Road.

Orchards and Hayfields were to be seen around about, becoming modern-day Paddington and its surrounding areas.

As the railway continued to expand Ladbroke Grove Station was opened in 1864, swallowing up what remained of the green fields of Notting Hill forever.

Holland Park

Sandwiched between Notting Hill Gate and Shepherds Bush, Holland Park is an exclusive little pocket which few but the exceedingly wealthy can call home.

Although there is a range of beautiful property in the area, it is famed for its huge double fronted houses on Holland Park (the street) itself and its quaint, exclusive mews properties. The area is named after the beautiful park that sits within it. What we recognise today as Holland Park was once privately owned land, the perimeters of which were sold off for residential development between 1860 and 1880.

A large chunk of the Park itself still gives us some insight today into its onetime rural setting, as much of it remains semi-rural and is home to an abundance of wildlife in the heart of London. A grand Jacobean mansion house once occupied the heart of this land. The original proprietor was one Henry Vassall-Fox, 3rd Baron Holland, and the house was last in the ownership of the 6th Earl of Ilchester. The house was bombed during the Second World War and the ruins that remain now form the backdrop to Holland Park open-air Theatre.

Unsurprisingly, Richard Branson was a onetime resident of Holland Park and the Beckhams are thought to own a property there too. As well as the many impressive private residences, many foreign embassies are also situated in this exclusive postcode. One of the world’s most expensive places to live, a house in Holland Park can sell for a cool price tag of over £10,000,000.

Shepherd’s Bush

West London district is a busy, diverse place not on a par with its Holland Park neighbour but with some nice streets and homes.

Home to Queens Park Rangers football club and more recently to the sprawling Westfield Shopping Centre, Shepherd’s Bush is dominated by its central green which some historians believe to be one of many of London’s plague pits and evidence suggests Iron Age occupation of the area. Records tell us that Waldhere, Bishop of London purchased the district on behalf of the Fulanham Estate in 704.

It is believed the name originates from a time when shepherds taking their flocks to Smithfield Market to be sold, would take respite on the common land here before continuing on with their journey.  Another belief is that it may simply have been named after a local person.

The region was largely rural being taken up with farmland, as opposed to nearby Hammersmith, which was developing at a pace.

Like other parts of what would be incorporated into London, Shepherd’s Bush began its expansion in the late 19th century to accommodate the ever-growing population.

Pimlico

Originally called Ebury Manor, the freehold of this marshy land was sold by King James I in 1623. In 1666 it became the property of the baby heiress Mary Davies, who inherited it from her great-uncle.

The five Fields as modern-day Belgravia and Pimlico was then called was not the only jewel in Mary’s crown though, she’d also inherited the vast majority of current day Knightsbridge and Mayfair.

Much sought-after as a result of her wealth, Mary married 21-year-old Sir Thomas Grosvenor of Cheshire at the tender age of just twelve in 1677. As was the custom of the age all her wealth/property became her husband’s. The marriage was reported to be an unhappy union and Mary is thought to have lost her sanity and died at a young age.  It was said to be the business acumen of The Grosvenor’s in relation to her land however which amassed the vast wealth the family are still renowned for today. They still own much of this land but did sell off some of it to build some of the more modern housing estates in the area in the 1950s.

By the late 17th century we begin to see Ebury and its surroundings referred to as Pimlico. It is thought the name could be that of a landlord of a tavern in the locality. Ben Pimlico was said to have served the nuttiest brown ale in the district. Others believe Ben’s famous alehouse was in Hoxton with the pathway to it being referred to as The Pimlico Path and the Pimlico of today takes its name from that Hoxton inn. H.G. Well’s had another theory. In his novel The Dream we are told there was at Pimlico a wharf at which American ships docked.  The author tells us that the name Pimlico came in with the trade and was the last remaining word (Pamlico) of the Indian Algonquin language. We cannot be sure, but all the theories are equally fascinating.

The current owner of what is now called the Grosvenor Estate is said to be one of the world’s wealthiest men, and he is not yet thirty. Hugh Richard Louis Grosvenor, 7th Duke of Westminster inherited in 2016 after the sudden death of his father. The Duke’s estimated wealth is thought to be around 9 billion.  Many street names such as Belgravia’s Eaton Square (the family’s Cheshire residence is Eaton Hall), and Mayfair’s Grosvenor Square are linked directly to them.

Pimlico has risen and fallen over the years. Dickens referred to some of it as The Devil’s Acre and the slums were said to be appalling. However, the building of Victoria Street led to many of these slums being pulled down.

Today Pimlico is another of London’s affluent areas but like Notting Hill, it is not exclusively so and is home to a diverse cross-section of people. Its close proximity to The Houses of Parliament coupled with its fine housing stock, sees many MPs making their home in Pimlico. There are many fine terraces, squares, and gardens, as well as Peabody estates and some remaining local authority housing, although much of this has been sold off and now commands high rentals. Its closeness to the Thames was a minus during The Blitz of WWII however, when many houses in the district were bombed. So today we see many a gap in these lovely terraces, which have been filled with small blocks of flats that do not look at all comfortable.

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