London Underground: the origins of some unusual names
Have you ever wondered how some of the more unusual sounding tube stops in London got their name? Taking a look at the origins of London Underground stations’ names is, of course, pretty much the same as exploring the origins of place names: almost all of them are named after the areas they serve. Locals might well know these, but we’re willing to bet at least some of them will be new to you – especially if you’re a tourist. So now, while travelling around underground, you’ll have a few language facts to while away the time. Sorry we couldn’t manage to do all of the Tube stops – there are currently 270 of them – but we’ve chosen the most linguistically interesting, we hope.
This tube station is named after the Angel area of London, but if you’re thinking that the residents of the locale are particularly saintly, we’re sorry to disappoint. It’s named after a former coaching inn on the Great North Road called the Angel, dating from the 17th century.
The most famous resident of Baker Street is, of course, Sherlock Holmes. You might think that it was named after a maker of cakes of pastries, but its namesake is actually William Baker, a builder who laid out the street in the second half of the 18th century.
If you’re anything like me, you may have wondered whether Bank station was named after a riverbank or a money bank. Well, it turns out I’d been getting confused with Embankment: Bank is nowhere near the river, and is named after the Bank of England. Incidentally, it was voted the most disliked tube station in 2013.
Burnt Oak, now the name of a suburb in Barnet, first appears in the name of a group of fields on a map of 1754. In the mid-19th century, these fields became part of the Victorian suburb of Red Hill, giving their name to a small estate built on the site. The tube station constructed here in 1924 was also known by the name of Burnt Oak, which soon eclipsed Red Hill as the name of the suburb. And the eponymous tree? This was presumably a distinctive oak tree that had been struck by lightning, and came to be used as a boundary marker
This tube station is named after a lake and wildlife refuge called Canada Water which, in turn is named after the former Canada Dock. It was chiefly used by ships docking there from Canada, but was closed in the 1970s and turned into the lake, refuge, and… a shopping centre.
Opened in 1999, Canary Wharf tube station shares its name with the business district in Tower Hamlets. What have canaries got to do with it, then? Canary Wharf takes its name from a warehouse on the West Wood Quay of the Import Dock, built for the Mediterranean and Canary Islands fruit trade. Those Canary Islands, in turn, are actually named after dogs rather than birds: their Latin name was Canariae Insulae, as (according to Pliny the Elder) the Mauretanian king Juba II said the island was full of dogs.
Chalfont & Latimer
Chalfont and Latimer may sound like a fictional legal practice, but it’s named after the three picturesquely-named Chalfont villages (Chalfont St Giles, Chalfont St Peter, and Little Chalfont) and Latimer, another village. Chalfont, in turn, means ‘chalk spring’ – which brings us on to…
Was there a place farming chalk, or (who knows) a farm made of chalk? Nothing so unusual, unfortunately: Chalk is in fact derived from the former name of the settlement, Chaldecote or Chalcot; the soil in the area is, in fact, clay.
Serving the Cockfosters area, this name dates back to the 16th century and is thought to have originally been the name of the residence of the cock (that is, chief) forester.
Elephant and Castle
You may have heard that Elephant and Castle is a corruption of ‘La Infanta de Castilla’, being a reference to various Spanish princesses. That explanation is just folk etymology, however. The actual derivation is a little more prosaic: it comes from an inn of that name, and from an old heraldic sign used, for example, as the symbol of the Cutler’s Company. The Elephant inn even gets a mention in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night (“In the south suburbs, at the Elephant, is best to lodge.”)
What is a golder, and why do they have a green? Well, Golders probably represents a local surname, while the Green was simply land on which the settlement was built.
What is the link between Hainault tube station and Hainault in Belgium? It’s a bit complex. Residents of Hainault might be surprised to learn that this unusual name comes from the Old English ‘Hyneholt or ‘Henehout’ and means ‘wood belonging to a religious community’. The spelling change came about in the 17th century, influenced by a fictitious connection with Philippa of Hainault, the wife of Edward III.
This one sounds a bit ominous; is your neck in danger in this neck of the woods? Well, no: the lane is named after Hanger Hill, the hill over which it travels, where hanger comes from the rather more innocuous Old English hangra, ‘a wood on a slope’.
King’s Cross St Pancras
This tube station services King’s Cross and St Pancras National Rail stations. The former is now perhaps best known for being Harry Potter’s entrance to Hogwarts, but the king in question is King George IV (who reigned 1820-1830), and the cross, a monument that was demolished in 1845. St Pancras was born around 289, and beheaded for his Christian faith when he was 14 years old. So many people say and write Pancreas instead of Pancras that a pancreatic cancer charity teamed up with St Pancras International on 11 March 2014.
Astute visitors to Maida Vale will have observed that it is nowhere near Maida in southern Italy. The unusual sounding district served by this tube station is named after the Hero of Maida inn. When this inn stood, it was named in honour of General Sir John Stuart, who was made Count of Maida after the Battle of Maida in 1806.
What puts the mile in Mile End? Well, it’s actually originally recorded as La Mile ende in 1288, and means ‘the hamlet a mile away’ – in this instance, about a mile away from Aldgate.
London is nothing if not replete with monuments, so which of them gave Monument its name? It’s one which is actually most commonly known simply as Monument, but its full name is ‘Monument to the Great Fire of London’, finished in 1677 on the site of the first church to be burnt down by the Great Fire in 1666.
If you’re getting out at Oxford Circus hoping to see some clowns and acrobats (or, indeed, Oxford) then you’re going to be disappointed. The oldest sense of circus is ‘a large building, generally oblong or oval, surrounded with rising tiers of seats, for the exhibition of public spectacles’ – thus not entirely different from today’s most common use – but, in this instance, it is simply a ‘circular open space at a street junction’.
Pimlico almost certainly takes its name from a well-known alehouse in Hoxton, also called Pimlico, named after its owner Ben Pimlico. It was a favourite haunt of theatrical folk, and is referenced in plays by Thomas Dekker, Ben Jonson, and others. It has been argued that this surname was transferred from the Pamlico Indians of North America, and thus is almost certainly the first native American place name to have been introduced into England.
There are various places or things called Seven Sisters around the world (and, indeed, out of it), from the Pleiades star cluster and the Greek mythological characters they are named after, to the group of American women’s colleges. The area served by this tube station, though, has rather more humble aspirations: the seven sisters were seven elms planted in a ring around a walnut tree on an area of land called Page Green. The trees were moved and then cut down; a circle of seven hornbeam trees were planted in 1997.
Although connections with Moses’ burning bush have been mooted over the years, the truth is a little less abstract. It’s thought that it is either named after somebody called Shepherd, or that the land here was once a resting place for shepherds on their way to Smithfield Market.
Though Sloane now has its own meaning and punning epithet – ‘a fashionable upper-class young woman’; Sloane Ranger – this came, unsurprisingly, after the place. Sloane Square itself is simply named after the noted physician and naturalist Sir Hans Sloane, who once owned the land.
As with Elephant and Castle and various other tube stations, this area owes its unusual name to a local inn. The Swiss Tavern, built in 1803-4, was in the style of a Swiss chalet – later renamed to the humbler Swiss Cottage.
When it originally opened in 1870, Temple was known as The Temple – named after the Temple area, after the Inner Temple and the Middle Temple. These religious-sounding buildings are actually two of the four Inns of Court, which are professional associations for barristers in England and Wales.
Tooting Bec is perhaps the most amusing name given to a tube station, but its origins aren’t too mired in mystery. Bec comes from Bec Abbey in Normandy (which owned this land after the Norman Conquest), while Tooting is a little less clear; it may have referred to ‘the people of the lookout place’.
This station (and the road) gets its name from the local turnpike – but what is a turnpike? It’s a historical term for a toll gate, though was originally a spiked barrier – thus a sense of pike meaning ‘a spiked staff or stick’.
Why White City? Well, this area got its name from the white-stuccoed walls of the stadium and exhibition opened here in 1908, originally as the venue for the Franco-British Exhibition and the 4th Olympic Games.
For many more details about the origins of London place names, you can explore A Dictionary of London Place-Names (2nd edition; 2010) edited by A. D. Mills.