Post no bills? Reflections on visits to place-names in the Surrey Weald

It’s over. My dissertation is handed in, my part in my Master’s degree is done. Finally, time to relax and enjoy the summer. I’m not much of a Doctor Who fan but nonetheless I enjoyed the coincidence of the episode aired that weekend being set in and around Nottingham. It’s been quite a year, strange at times but overall a good one. I can’t claimed to have learned Old English in the process, but I have got a handle on the basics – or at least those parts of the language I’ll need going forward – as well as a heap of other new knowledge and experiences to boot.


My dissertation – there it is above disappearing into the assessed coursework submissions bin – looks at the Surrey place-names claimed by various authorities over the decades to be derived from Old English -ingas and -ingahām, two toponymic elements about which much has been published over the years (here’s an early Surrey Medieval page that acts as a bit of a primer on some of the key literature). You may think this means there’s nothing much else to be said on the matter. Au contraire, now seems to be the time to draw together all that has been published and take a fresh, impartial look at them untainted by preconceptions about their age or “tribal” connotation.

I started off collecting all relevant names (and by that I mean anything with an historic or modern -ing-, -ing particle) from Surrey and Sussex, which left me with a massive dataset dripping with possibilities, but not amenable to be analysed successfully within the confines of a 14,000-word dissertation. Duly, I reduced the scope to Surrey alone and trimmed out all names containing a use of singular -ing (look out for a post about these in due course) to leave only those in one of the plural forms. However hard I tried to write economically and succinctly about them, this still left me miles over the limit so again I was left with no option but to readjust the compass of the analysis, plumping to consider just the two types of -inga(s) place-name formation. This at least had the advantage of being able to realign the dissertation with the important overviews of such place-names in Surrey published by Eilert Ekwall in 1962 and John Insley in 2005.

The verbiage which didn’t make the cut wasn’t just based on dipping into books and journals. It was also derived from site visits, sometimes testing my own hypotheses, other times those of previous authors who seem not to have gone to the places in question. It’s an example of the latter I want to begin with and then extend here.

John Dodgson, alongside his seminal work on the age of -ingas and -inga- place-names, also published a series of articles on various uses of -ing in Old English place-names. They are less well known today because they were published in the German journal Beiträge zur Namenforschung, hardly a regular feature of many academic libraries let alone private equivalents, but together are more important in the interpretation of name formations of this ilk. The articles are a long way from perfect: densely technical, repetitive, and, when it comes to some of his individual name analyses, over-reliant on some under-critical treatment of the philological data. All the same, they are effective in demonstrating the picture presented in some earlier works was a simplification of the reality.

Dodgson opened with Great and Little Billing in Northamptonshire as the lead example of a place-name formation found throughout England. Whereas previous scholars from J. M. Kemble on treated a name like this as betokening Billingas, ‘folk called after Billa‘, Dodgson introduced the idea of derivation from a singular name formation, either a ‘topographical proper-noun Billing or a common-noun billing, which the basic element is a topographical term rather than a personal-name’ (Dodgson 1967, 326-27). The relevant term is bill, ‘sword, cutting tool’, a subject for which I have previous. Its topographical connotation seems to have been a landform which came to a point; much the same applies for bile, whence Modern English bill of a bird. Dodgson saw the occurrence of bill in combination with -ing being so frequent as to indicate *billing was a lexical item, one which was capable of being understood (and, where circumstances were appropriate, replicated) by many who encountered it in a toponymic context. This has been adopted by later scholars, although its standard translation as ‘hill-place’ is laughably vague (VEPN, 100).

The discussion moves on to Billingshurst in Wealden Sussex, a name for which Dodgson offered multiple translations, the most credible being ‘the hyrst (called, at) Billing‘ or ‘the hyrst of Billing‘, in which hyrst means ‘wooded hill’ (Dodgson 1967, 329-30). Here, the first half of the name has *Billing (or conceivably *billing) in the genitive singular. Usually, this inflection is used with personal names, and what Dodgson did not acknowledge was that the personal name Billing is found in the earliest portion of the Durham Liber Vitae, composed in the earlier ninth-century (Insley & Rollason 2007, 169; it also occurs in line 25 of the Old English poem known as Widsith). An interpretation “wooded hill of [a man named] Billing” would be entirely compatible with the evidence of the collected attestations of the place-name Billingshurst, only there is persuasive topographical motivation, in the form of a prominent narrow (one might even go so far as to say sword-blade-shaped) ridge to the east of the town, at whose apex the parish church is sited.

My dissertation fieldwork took me to two places in the Weald in Surrey, which in different ways shed new light on how and why Old English bill was used in respect of Wealden landforms. The first is High Billinghurst in Dunsfold parish (OS Grid reference TQ 020369). It was appraised by Dodgson (1967, 330), who noted the earlier suggestion – and did not discount the possibility – that it was a possible ‘manorial’ transfer from Billingshurst (see PNS, 235). Importantly, he also observed that either way the names (High) Billinghurst and Billingshurst are analogous, with the former incorporating *Billing either in its uninflected nominative/accusative singular form or just possibly the dative singular *Billinge.

High Billinghurst from west

High Billinghurst (and some startled horses) viewed from the west

High Billinghurst from NW

High Billinghurst viewed (so far as trees allow) from the north-west

Seeing High Billinghurst first-hand in its landscape context proves that the name is without a doubt one coined to reflect the topographical situation of the place. The present-day farm sits atop a distinct eminence, which may not be brought out especially clearly by the above photos, that is sufficiently prominent as to confirm it is the origin of the name (High seems to be a late prefix added to minor Wealden place-names attached to hilltop sites, e.g. High Loxley, also in Dunsfold parish: PNS, 236). Therefore, not only is explaining the name in ‘manorial’ terms unnecessary, but the different inflections incorporated within Billinghurst and Billingshurst are reflective of choices made at the time the two names were coined.

Billeshurst Wood

Billeshurst Wood and surrounding area, from OS Explorer map (copyright Ordnance Survey, not mine – reproduced via without permission but with the utmost respect…)

The other place I visited with the intention of seeing whether its name stems from topographical bill is Billeshurst Wood in Lingfield in the south-east corner of Surrey (centred on grid reference TQ 403443). Its similarity to Billinghurst is partly illusory; early spellings beginning with Billesersse 1198 show the generic is not hyrst but Old English ersc, ‘ploughed land’. PNS (328) identifies the specific as a personal name Bil(l); Gelling and Cole (2000, 268) opt for *Bill (a slightly strange choice given the Domesday-attested Bil). What made me think there may be another way of understanding Billeshurst was consulting the OS map and spotting how the 50-metre contour forms a very distinctive finger-like projection from the north-eastern corner of Margaret’s Hill – just the sort of thing which in the Old English period might attract use of the term bill.

Seen in real life, the proposed bill of Billeshurst is not especially striking in its prominence – less so than the *billing of High Billinghurst – though this may be partly explicable by the obscuring effect of Billeshurst and Dencher Woods. The treeless ground in between – which could well be equivalent to the ersc – slopes gently down, with a slightly steeper gradient on its eastern flank. Here, then, if it is not the product of false analogy with a personal name, we seem to have a compound beginning with the genitive singular-inflected form of topographical bill. To translate the name on the same lines as Dodgson’s suggestions for Billingshurst, this may denote either “ploughed land of/at the bill” or “ploughed land of/at [the place known as] Bill“.

Billeshurst from north east

Stood on the bill looking south-west from Dencher Wood towards Billeshurst Wood and Margaret’s Hill

Why some names were formed using bill and others *billing, and why some were in the genitive inflection and others in a different case, is something that will require further investigation. Could it be that a *billing was a more substantial and/or more visually-striking landscape feature than a bill? Might the different inflections be a product of different dates or phases of place-name creation?

Insights may come from looking more closely at the other Wealden place-names from bill(ing). Buildings Farm and Wood in Ewhurst parish (Biledone, Billedene 1225) is the only comparable published Surrey name whose location I have not been able to visit to date. It has been interpreted as ‘Billa‘s valley’, a combination of the personal name *Billa and denu (PNS, 238). As can be seen below, Buildings Wood (centred on grid reference TQ 108386) seems to overlie a slender-ish isthmus of higher ground heading in a northerly direction from a high point close to Somersbury Wood; the valley represented by the second half of the compound is doubtless the one to the east. There is no trace of a medial -n- which would be expected if the first half of the name came from a genitive singular *Billan, but this does not always show up in Middle English spellings in Surrey. Nevertheless, given the weak direct evidence for the posited personal name and the numerous correlates for the topographical alternative, it may not be going too far to suggest in the name Buildings we have another occurrence of bill (or possibly bile). Across the southern county boundary in Sussex are a clutch of likely place-names in bill in addition to Billingshurst which merit future visitation: Bilsborough in Woodmancote, Billingham in Udimore, Bill Gut by Pevensey, possibly High Buildings in Ebernoe.

Billeshurst Wood and surrounding area, from OS Explorer map (copyright Ordnance Survey, not mine - reproduced via without permission but with the utmost respect...)

Buildings Wood and surrounding area, from OS Explorer map – note 80m contour (copyright Ordnance Survey, not mine – reproduced via without permission but with the utmost respect…)

Moreover, these are the tip of an iceberg of other possible -ing appellatives and related formations present in the name-stock of the Weald. Back in the 1950, Gordon Copley identified a series of place-names distributed along the axis of the trans-Wealden Stane Street as forming ‘a group of dependent hamlets stretching right across the Weald’, of which Poling was the head ‘village’ (Copley 1950, 101-102). Reassessment of the Surrey members of this supposed federation – Pollingfold in Ewhurst, Pallinghurst in Cranleigh, Polesden on the North Downs – indicates that they should not be understood to share a common derivation; late-recorded Pallinghurst (PNS, 231) may even have a Middle English origin. A more credible group of names – but not necessarily group of group-names – consists of Collendean in Surrey (Covelindenne 13th), Cuttinglye (Couelingeley 1286) and Cullinghurst (Covelynghurst 1354) in Sussex, all of which been suggested to derive from an unattested personal name *Cūfel(a) (PNS, 293; PNSx, 281, 367). Serious consideration should be given instead to the possibility that they share an origin from the Old English noun cūfel, ‘hood, headcloth’, used in some hitherto-unsuspected topographical sense in combination with a singular -ing suffix.

The above is very much an interim report, but, from my visits to two Wealden locations whose names probably stem from Old English bill, a few things have become clear. First, Dodgson was justified in arguing for a topographical *billing as a counterpart to bill (even if he did muddy matters by asserting parallel and alternating singular topographical and plural folk-name forms rather than resort to the more plausible explanation that such differences are nothing more significant than the inconsistent orthographical choices made by Middle English scribes). If Billinghurst and Billeshurst are representative examples, a Wealden bill or a *billing wasn’t as narrow or pointed as a sword blade, but both terms were applied to raised landforms whose proportions were not so modest as to prevent them having distinct characteristics, ones particularly appreciable at close quarters. A bill was not simply a hill, and a *billing not simply a ‘hill-place’; at the risk of introducing circularity into the argument, both were types of eminence defined by their bill-like qualities.

So far as is known, place-names in bill and *billing in Surrey are restricted to the southernmost, Wealden parts of the county, but in Sussex there are signs both had a wider distribution. Further research into my combined two-county database promises to reveal similar groups united by an element which is susceptible to testing in the field. Ultimately, I hope this will go some way to reducing the high number of Wealden place-names currently understood to be derived from extra-Wealden-based -ingas folk-groups.


Copley, Gordon J., ‘Stane Street in the Dark Ages’, Sussex Archaeological Collections, 89 (1950), 98-104.

Dodgson, John McNeil, ‘Various forms of Old English -ing in English place-names’, Beiträge zur Namenforschung, Neue Folge, 2 (1967), 325-96.

Ekwall, Eilert, English Place-Names in -ing, second edition (Lund: CWK Gleerup, 1962).

Gelling, Margaret, and Ann Cole, The Landscape of Place-Names (Stamford: Shaun Tyas, 2000)

Gover, J. E. B., A. Mawer and F. M. Stenton, The Place-Names of Surrey [PNS], English Place-Name Society, 11 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1934).

Insley, John, ‘Surrey’ in Reallexikon der Germanischen Altertumskunde, 30, ed. by Rosemarie Müller (Berlin & New York: Walter de Gruyter, 2005), 137-41.

Insley, John, and David Rollason, ‘English Monothematic Names’ in The Durham Liber Vitae, Volume 2: Linguistic Commentary, ed. by David Rollason and Lynda Rollason (London: British Library, 2007), 165-87.

Mawer, A., and F. M. Stenton, The Place-Names of Sussex [PNSx], 2 Parts, English Place-Name Society, 6 & 7 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1929).

Parsons, David, and Tania Styles with Carole Hough, The Vocabulary of English Place-Names (Á-BOX) [VEPN] (Nottingham: Centre for English Name Studies, 1997).


About Robert J S Briggs

Back to being a part-time early medievalist; Surrey born, London based, been known to travel
This entry was posted in Anglo-Saxon, Landscape, News, Nottingham, Old English, Place, Place-Names, Surrey, Sussex, Topography and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Post no bills? Reflections on visits to place-names in the Surrey Weald

  1. Pingback: Onomastics » The thing about -ing(tūn)

  2. Nigel Rush says:

    I live at Killinghurst in the Surrey weald, and have always believed it to arise from a Saxon name “Cylling”, with “hurst” being (on) a wooded hill. But I have only wandered on to your interesting (and co-incidentally local) Blog (is it a Blog?) because of some 20th century architectural research which has led me to 41-43 Maddox Street and therefore Smalpage & Son and therefore here.. I will continue in Leave A Reply on that page (Smalpage’s page).

    • Hi Nigel, really happy you stumbled across my blog (I still call it a blog although the number of pages do make it website-like) and thanks for the comments. Killinghurst is an interesting name. Arguably, it should be considered alongside two other Chiddingfold names: Frillinghurst and Sydenhurst. All appear to be Old English element + ing + hyrst formations. The big question (for which I don’t have the answer – yet!) is whether the first elements are personal names or something topographical. I tend towards the latter, though most would prefer the former.

  3. Pingback: A piece of medieval Bramley rediscovered in Boston, MA | Surrey Medieval

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