Strange Tales of Old Sussex: Place Names

Many of our place names date back to our origins as a Saxon kingdom and derive from people or physical features of our landscape, for example, suffixes such as hurst (a wood), co(o)mb (a valley – or perhaps from an even older word of Celtic origin), hawth (a common) and ham (a homestead).

horsham
Horsham

Though some have been urbanised, sanitised or mucked about with, we still have some lovely old place names in Sussex. Take, for example, the village of Selmeston, which Sussex folk have always pronounced as Sinson. And nearby, Chalvington has always been known as Charnton whilst Pevensey becomes Pemsey. 

One of the earliest stories from this part of the county concerns Alciston, a small village under the Downs. The tale, believed to be originally recorded by Arthur Beckett, concerns an intrepid stranger who was sent there to seek out a Mr Pocock. Having duly arrived at what appeared to be “the village”, there weren’t many people about but eventually, he encountered a stout resident to whom he addressed his enquiry for “Mr Pocock of Alciston“. He received the reply that “I doant know of any sich person and I’ve never heered of any sich place.”

Our enquirer pursued his door to door search, although there weren’t many doors to knock on, eventually to be directed to a cottage, the door of which was opened by his original informant. After a certain amount of interrogation, that worthy individual opined, “Well, if you’d ‘ave asked for Mus Palk of Ahson you might have found me first time.”

Bosham
Bosham

There are two other peculiarities of Sussex place names. Firstly the Sussex “lyes” – Ardingly, Hellingly, Chiddingly and Hoathly, pronounced “lye” but never spelt with an “e”. The other Sussex peculiarity has been to place the emphasis on the last syllable, for example, Berw | ick and Rudgw | ick. Other names have always been abbreviated as in Hors – Ham for Horsham, Bozzum for Bosham and Slaugham which could have been rendered Slog-um or Slay-em but which has always been pronounced Slaffham.

So Burwash has also always been pronounced Burrish and Heathfield became Hefful whilst Haywards Heath was Hewards Hawth  – nothing at all to do with a highwayman called Hayward.  Add in a few territorial anomalies such as Lower Beeding being contrarily much higher than Upper Beeding and you have a formula for keeping the foreigners (anyone not born in Sussex) out – much as in the same way as Cambridge organises its May races in June.

Slaugham Sussex
Slaugham

Many of the above place names were alluded to in the original version of the Dictionary of Sussex Dialect (by the Rev. W D Parish, vicar of Selmeston), which volume was enlarged by Helena Hall, local historian of Lindfield and now again expanded and republished. Research of our place names was done by Mawer and Stenton, distinguished Cambridge academics of the 1930s, and later by Judith Glover, who published her Place Names of Sussex in 1975.

Contributed by Peter Benner 

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