English place names

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I’m straying into Ollie’s blogging territory a bit here, but I found that the polehead collection got me thinking quite a bit about place, and the relationship between objects and places.

Seeing so many place names at once, I started to draw connections between them and notice patterns. The most obvious was the number of places with ‘combe’ in the name, especially in Somerset. The strong relationship between the names of places and their geographical features can be found throughout the UK, in English, Welsh and Gaelic. ‘Combe’ comes from the Saxon word for ‘valley’ and Compton, which I’ve also catalogued a few of, means ‘valley farm’.  There’s a handy website with more examples and look out for a blog post on this theme in the future.

Another idea that came to me, although I’m struggling to articulate it clearly, is how a polehead can relate to place in so many ways. Not only is the polehead connected physically to a place in that it was actually used there, it is also connected symbolically – it represents membership of the Friendly Society which was formed for the benefit of the people there. As mentioned earlier, the form and shape of the polehead can directly represent the place it comes from – such as an anchor if it comes from a village near the sea, or a deer if the squire owned a deer park. On a wider level, these types of poleheads are representative of the West Country in that they are only found in this region of England.

And finally, while cataloguing the Shickle Collection I made a list of all the places mentioned. I think it would be good to add the other polehead collections to it when we catalogue them… I’ll try to persuade Felicity.

  • Aller, Somerset
  • Alveston, Gloucestershire
  • Ansford, Somerset
  • Ashby Saint Ledgers, Northamptonshire
  • Ashcott, Somerset
  • Axbridge, Somerset
  • Banwell, Somerset
  • Batcombe, Somerset
  • Bath, Somerset
  • Bathpool, Somerset
  • Binegar, Somerset
  • Bishop’s Hull, Somerset
  • Bishops Lydeard, Somerset
  • Bitton, Gloucestershire
  • Blagdon, Somerset
  • Bower Hinton, Somerset
  • Bowlish, Somerset
  • Bradninch, Devon
  • Bridgeyate, Gloucestershire
  • Bristol
  • Broadway, Somerset
  • Bruton, Somerset
  • Buckhorn Weston, Dorset
  • Buckland Dinham, Somerset
  • Burrington, Somerset
  • Burrow Bridge, Somerset
  • Burton, Wiltshire
  • Butleigh, Somerset
  • Cannington, Somerset
  • Carlingcott, Somerset
  • Castle Cary, Somerset
  • Charlton Horethorne, Somerset
  • Chedzoy, Somerset
  • Chew Magna, Somerset
  • Chewton Mendip, Somerset
  • Chilcompton, Somerset
  • Chiselborough, Somerset
  • Churchill, Somerset
  • Clutton, Somerset
  • Coalpit Heath, Gloucestershire
  • Combe Florey, Somerset
  • Combe Hay, Somerset
  • Combe Saint Nicholas, Somerset
  • Combwich, Somerset
  • Compton Martin, Somerset
  • Corsley Heath, Wiltshire
  • Corston, Somerset
  • Creech Saint Michael, Somerset
  • Crewkerne, Somerset
  • Crowcombe, Somerset
  • Curry Mallet, Somerset
  • Ditcheat, Somerset
  • Dowlish Wake, Somerset
  • Downend, Gloucestershire
  • Drayton, Somerset
  • Dudley, West Midlands/Worcestershire
  • East Stour, Dorset
  • Evercreech, Somerset
  • Farrington Gurney, Somerset
  • Fifehead Magdalen, Dorset
  • Filton, Bristol
  • Filton, Gloucestershire
  • Filton/Whitchurch, Somerset
  • Fishponds, Bristol
  • Frenchay, Gloucestershire
  • Frome, Somerset
  • Glastonbury, Somerset
  • Halberton, Devon
  • Halse, Somerset
  • Ham, Somerset
  • Hambrook, Gloucestershire
  • Hanham, Gloucestershire
  • Hardington, Somerset
  • Harptree, Somerset
  • Hele (near Bradninch) Devon
  • Henstridge, Somerset
  • Henton, Somerset
  • Heytesbury, Wiltshire
  • Holcombe, Somerset
  • Huntspill, Somerset
  • Ilchester, Somerset
  • Keevil, Wiltshire
  • Kelston, Somerset
  • Keynsham, Somerset
  • Kilmersdon, Somerset
  • Kilve, Somerset
  • Kingsbury Episcopi, Somerset
  • Kingsdon, Somerset
  • Kingston Saint Mary, Somerset
  • Kingswood, Bristol, Gloucestershire
  • Larkhall, Somerset
  • Long Ashton, Somerset
  • Long Burton, Dorset
  • Lopen, Somerset
  • Maiden Bradley, Wiltshire
  • Mark, Somerset
  • Marnhull, Dorset
  • Marston Bigot, Somerset
  • Martock, Somerset
  • Meare, Somerset
  • Merriott, Somerset
  • Mickleton, Gloucestershire
  • Milverton, Somerset
  • Middle Chinnock, Somerset
  • Misterton, Somerset
  • Monkton Farleigh, Wiltshire
  • Montacute, Somerset
  • Nailsea, Somerset
  • Nether Stowey, Somerset
  • Nibley, Gloucestershire
  • North Cadbury, Somerset
  • North Coker, Somerset
  • North Perrott, Somerset
  • Norton Saint Philip, Somerset
  • Nunney, Somerset
  • Oakhill, Somerset
  • Panborough, Somerset
  • Pawlett, Somerset
  • Potterne, Wiltshire
  • Priddy, Somerset
  • Publow, Somerset
  • Pucklechurch, Gloucestershire
  • Puddletown, Dorset
  • Radstock, Somerset
  • Redhill, Somerset
  • Rode, Somerset
  • Seavington Saint Michael, Somerset
  • Shepton Beauchamp, Somerset
  • Sherborne, Dorset
  • Shirehampton, Bristol
  • Siston, Gloucestershire
  • Somerton, Somerset
  • Soundwell, Gloucestershire
  • South Brewham, Somerset
  • South Petherton, Somerset
  • South Wraxall, Wiltshire
  • Stalbridge, Dorset
  • Stapleton, Bristol
  • Stogursey, Somerset
  • Stoke Saint Michael, Somerset
  • Stoke sub Hampton, Somerset
  • Ston Easton, Somerset
  • Stone Allerton, Somerset
  • Stourton Caundle, Dorset
  • Street, Somerset
  • Studley, Wiltshire
  • Sturminster, Dorset
  • Sutton Veny, Wiltshire
  • Swineford, Gloucestershire
  • Taunton, Somerset
  • Temple Cloud, Somerset
  • Templecombe, Somerset
  • Timsbury, Somerset
  • Tiverton, Devon
  • Tividale, West Midlands
  • Tunley, Somerset
  • Wanstrow, Somerset
  • Warminster, Wiltshire
  • Watchet, Somerset
  • Wedmore, Somerset
  • Wellow, Somerset
  • Wells, Somerset
  • Wembdon, Somerset
  • Westbury on Trym, Bristol
  • West Chinnock, Somerset
  • West Coker, Somerset
  • West Monkton, Somerset
  • West Pennard, Somerset
  • West Stour, Dorset
  • Westonzoyland, Somerset
  • Whitechurch, Somerset
  • Wick, Somerset
  • Williton, Somerset
  • Willoughby, Warwickshire
  • Winsley, Wiltshire
  • Winterbourne, Gloucestershire
  • Wrington, Somerset
  • Writhlington, Somerset
  • Yate, Gloucestershire
  • Yatton, Somerset
  • Zeals, Wiltshire

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Time for the technical stuff…

One of the key points of focus in our cataloguing is location (hence all this place-related blogging). The Shickle Collection covers about 180 villages, many of which were not listed on the Getty Thesaurus of Geographic Names, so I spent quite a lot of time exploring Google Maps of Somerset, Wiltshire, Devon, Dorset and Gloucestershire. I’d love to see all of these places pinned on a map to see just how big an area the Shickle Collection covers, and to get a feel for whether it is very evenly spread out, or clustered in particular areas. Perhaps that’s something for a rainy Sunday afternoon…  We hope that one of the outcomes of the cataloguing work we’re doing will be to have our collections pinpointed on a map so maybe one day I’ll get lucky!

As part of the cataloguing process I had to create thesaurus terms for all of these places. This was not an easy task.

 

Challenge 1: Getty.

Many of the places, being very small villages, were not listed in Getty. This wasn’t too bad, as it could be overcome by using other online sources such as Google Maps and A Vision of Britain through Time.

 

Challenge 2: Spelling.

Along with variant spellings and alternative names for places, there was also quite a lot of mis-spellings on the original accession records, so I had to search for lots of possible spellings and scour the maps to find what I was looking for. Thankfully, many of the villages were recorded as being near somewhere so at least I had a starting point to look at.

 

Challenge 3: One name, several villages.

Place names aren’t unique and we’ve come across many instances in our catalogue of several places sharing the same name, but these are usually in different counties and can be distinguished by this on the Adlib catalogue. The problem I had this time round was when there were two, or more, villages sharing the same name in the same county, such as Hele in Devon. In this case, it wasn’t possible to distinguish them by county so instead I had to resort to using ‘near’ e.g. ‘Hele [near Bradninch]’ and ‘Hele [near Ilfracombe]’.

 

Challenge 4: One polehead, several villages.

In some cases it was hard to establish the relationship between the polehead and the place recorded in the accession records. Did the (tangible) polehead belong to the identified place, or was it the (intangible) design which belonged there? When a polehead was identified as belonging to several clubs, does it mean that several villages shared the same tangible polehead, or shared the intangible design? There were many subtleties in the wording on the accession records to do with degrees of certainty and I tried to rationalise the cataloguing in the following ways:

  1. It belonged to the Club at A – A recorded as ‘place used’
  2. It belonged to Club at A and B – A and B recorded as ‘place used’
  3. It probably belonged to Club A – A recorded as ‘associated place’
  4. It probably belonged to Club A and B – A and B recorded as ‘associated place’
  5. It belonged to Club A or B – A and B recorded as ‘as associated place’
  6.  It belonged to one of Club A, B or C – A, B and C recorded as ‘associated place’

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I don’t have time to visit every place I’ve catalogued (see my post on East Hendred and the Lavinia Smith Collection), but I feel I’ve been getting to know Somerset (and the surrounding counties) through the Shickle Collection of Friendly Society poleheads (search ‘Shickle’ under collection in the online catalogue). MERL holds four collections of poleheads – the Shickle Collection, the Allen Collection, the Jardine Collection and the Forster Collection. The Shickle Collection consists of about 250 and occupied a happy week of cataloguing from the year 1951. It’s definitely Felicity’s turn to catalogue the next polehead collection!

Poleheads from the Allen Collection.

Friendly Societies were village clubs formed to provide insurance for members in the case of sickness or death, and they also played an important role in the village social life. A government act was passed in 1793 to encourage their foundation, and they were common until the late-nineteenth century. Most Friendly Societies held an annual meeting which was followed by a church service and a procession, or ‘walk’, around the parish. In many areas, simple poles were carried in the processions, but in Somerset and the adjoining counties brass poleheads, like those in the Shickle Collection, were commonly used.

There are two basic types of poleheads in the Shickle Collection – the ‘spear’ type, which is essentially flat, and the ‘bedpost’ type, which is bulbous. These are often embellished in various ways – with cut out designs, curved edges, projections, differently shaped and sized bulges and so on. Common motifs include crowns, oak leaves, clasped hands, birds, diamonds, triangles, hearts etc. and in some cases the motif represents the interest of the Friendly Society or the place where they met. The Society at Frome in Somerset met at the Ring of Bells pub and their polehead is spear shaped with cut outs of five bells and two crescents (51/913). Unfortunately the Shickle Collection poleheads are all packed away in boxes so I couldn’t take any photos, but the Allen Collection is on open display in our stores.

Spear type poleheads with an array of emellishments.

Close up of a bedpost type polehead.

 

 

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Leaving my own thoughts on what a ‘sense of place’ means to another time, I’m going to talk a little bit about the practical issues we have encountered when putting geographic context about objects onto our database.

Having plenty of geographical context in the paper accession files, we had to decide how to put that information onto the database, and how to make it searchable.  We decided to create a hierarchy of places so that any specific place would, ideally, be linked to a county, region and country. Adlib, the database we’re working with, has a hierarchical capacity which enables us to do this. So, the geographical keyword (i.e. place) ‘Reading’ could be linked to ‘Berkshire’, for example.  This brought up the issue, however, of deciding what form our hierarchy should take.  Should we use a current list of contemporary administrative units, which include ‘unitary authorities’?  Or should we use the still commonly used ceremonial counties?  Long discussions threw up more and more ‘but what if…’ problems.  How would we put ‘the Cotswolds’ into a hierarchy, for example?  What about an object which arrived in the 1950s from Middlesex, a county which completely ceased to exist in the 1960s?

Throughout the course of these discussions, I discovered that my own understanding of the county system in the United Kingdom was woefully inaccurate.  In my defence, it really is quite confusing.  The ‘County of Herefordshire’, for example, is also a unitary authority, and the ‘City of London’ is apparently also a ceremonial county.  Aside from showing up my own lack of geographical understanding though, our discussions did raise an important point – how do our visitors, who will hopefully be using ‘place’ as a way to search and access the collections, understand ‘place’?

Eventually, we decided that the only way to achieve any sort of consistency in our cataloguing was to use a hierarchy based on contemporary administrative boundaries, and we have based ours on the hierarchy used in the online ‘Getty Thesaurus of Geographic Names’.  Bearing in mind some of the ‘problem places’ mentioned above, though, we have added in a number of other hierarchy levels.  These will hopefully enable us to both more accurately represent the level of contextual detail contained in the accession records, and make the hierarchy fit with as many understandings of ‘place’ as possible.

Places are therefore linked first to their ‘administrative unit’, but then also to their ceremonial county (if relevant) and region.  So ‘Reading’ is linked up to ‘Reading [unitary authority]’, which is linked to ‘Berkshire’, which is linked to ‘South East England’, and so on.  A lower level may also be added, that of ‘specific locale’, such as farm names, estate names and, where relevant, street names.  The problem places such as now non-existent counties and vague areas such as the ‘Cotswolds’ are still entered, but link straight to the country/countries they are in.  They are listed as ‘non-preferred terms’, showing that they should only be used when no other information is available, and also have a note which defines the area that they refer to.

It’s certainly not a perfect system, and we still regularly encounter new ‘but what if…’ problems, but we hope that eventually it will enable visitors to access information about ‘place’ in our collections in a way that is both consistent and logical, but also meaningful to them.

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