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A Sociolinguistic History of British House Names


Laura Wright


British Academy Monographs

Oxford: University Press, 2020

Hardcover. xvii+281 p. ISBN 978-0197266557. £65


Reviewed by Hugh Clout

University College London




The recent round of re-naming of rooms and buildings in British universities is a salutary reminder that names matter. In my own institution, the ‘Pearson Building’, named after Karl Pearson (1857-1936) statistician and eugenicist, is now labelled the ‘North West Wing’. Similarly, the lecture theatre named after polymath eugenicist Francis Galton (1822-1911) is now simply identified by its room number. Years back, the building, still known as Foster Court, in which I spent my student years contained a mysterious room labelled ‘English Place Name Survey’. I never discovered who inhabited it or what went on in there but I learned from lectures in historical geography that place names were revealing and important. The street in which I live in south London has no named properties, nor do the neighbouring streets but not far away there are streets where each house bears a name. The properties sited along these thoroughfares are large, the carriageways are wide, and the trees that shade them are tall and well established. The very act of naming property has much to say about wealth, class and society in general. Sociolinguist Dr. Laura Wright, reader in English at Cambridge University, focuses on the naming of houses and buildings, taking her analysis back to medieval times and, in places, even earlier. She demonstrates that at present British houses typically bear names that fit into five classes: names transferred from other places; nostalgically rural names; commemorative titles (often recalling the British Empire); indicators of upward mobility; and names relating to popular, usually literary, culture. The house name ‘Elasrofton’, which should be read backwards, made me smile [9].

Before examining the significance of ‘Sunnyside’, a name that emerged from a random perusal of a post office directory for Ealing in 1872, Dr. Wright presents an erudite inventory of the earliest London house names. Before 1300, ‘hall’ and ‘house’ were typical, but from the 1320s ‘heraldic names became common for commercial premises, adopting emblems used by chivalric knights’ [43]. By the 1480s, names of legendary characters were in use for commercial premises. At the start of the eighteenth century, ‘an extensive informal code of trade signs had evolved’, and by the 1760s ‘numbering replaced urban building signs, with the exception of bookshops and pubs’ [44]. Next comes an analysis of names typically attributed to Victorian villas sampled from two areas of London, notably Finchley New Road in the north of the city and Wandsworth Road in the south. The five classes of house name were clearly in evidence, with particular emphasis on indications of upward social mobility and memories of imperial conquest. Names evoking trees, ferns and other botanical features duly made their appearance since many villas had extensive gardens. By the 1880s, the house name ‘court’ had been transformed from an indication of tenements for the poor to properties containing up-market apartments; sometimes the word ‘mansion’ was added.

In chapter 3, Dr. Wright provides a detailed account of ‘London’s first Sunnysiders’, who gave this name to their residences. Examining the lives of four of them, living in St. John’s Wood, Hornsey, Peckham Rye and Lower Clapton, she discovers wealthy citizens who belonged to a variety of nonconformist churches (the New Jerusalem Church, Swedenborgians, Sandemanians, and Plymouth Brethren). These four pre-1870 London Sunnysiders were involved with ‘the paper and print industries, religious non-conformism, membership of livery companies and professional societies, and [had links with] Scotland’ [74]. From this small cluster, Laura Wright extends her sample to embrace a score of Sunnysiders identified in the 1870 post office directory. Biographies of varying length and detail reveal that:

Early London Sunnysiders were wealthy, successful, respectable businessmen, owning their own companies, employing others, who either commuted from the suburbs or retired to the suburbs; religious dissenters, committed to their interpretation of Christianity as a way of life and involved in their churches, brotherly, charitable and philanthropic; City of London liverymen, members of learned and professional societies, convivial, with overlapping professional networks. They also had a raised likelihood of Scottishness. [83]  

By 1870, ‘Sunnyside must have connoted modernity, as the fashion for the name gathered pace’ as London’s suburbia expanded in all directions [83].

Developing her religious line of argument, Laura Wright discovered that ‘Sunnyside’ was used to name churches and mills as well as residences in northern England during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The earliest identified example relates to Rossendale in Lancashire, where Quakers were known to be present in 1706. From this starting point, the name was adopted by Wesleyan and Primitive Methodists, Baptists, ‘Bible Christians’ and many other nonconformist congregations in Lancashire, Northumberland and County Durham. It is likely that Quakers were responsible for taking the name to North America, where it was adopted by Baptists, Mennonites, United Methodists and many other Protestant groups in the USA. Similar, albeit later, adoptions occurred in Canada and South Africa. Having identified a clear link between ‘Sunnyside’ and early non-conformism in northern Britain, Dr. Wright argues that the link between Scotland and North America was reinforced by Washington Irving’s ramblings in Scotland in 1816, when he visited Sunnyside Farm at Melrose in Roxburghshire. ‘Sunnyside’ became the chosen name for his property at Tarrytown, New York.  

From her exploration of churches and house names, Laura Wright extends her enquiry to the present distribution of ‘Sunnyside’ as a place name in Scotland and northern England. An obvious correlation with south-facing locations is dismissed on page 100 but reappears later in the text. A wide array of evidence indicates that the term was used initially in relation to the periodic redistribution of cultivation strips to ensure that each tenant would have access to sunny as well as shady plots. This was ‘the practice of solskifte (sun-shift) or sun division, a Nordic method of dividing lands on open- or common-field systems’ [127]. Perhaps surprisingly, ‘sides of hills were not where Sunnysides were typically situated’ [129]. At a later stage, when common-field systems were replaced by enclosed plots, the term ‘sunnyside’ related to ‘splinter farms set up on land that had previously been designated a sunny portion of a larger unit’ of cultivated land [145]. Maximum exposure to sunlight was acknowledged in this act of naming. By contrast with the lengthy exploration of solskifte, I was surprised that no mention was made of detailed work by geographers into the complexity of ‘adret’ and ‘ubac’ (sunny and shady) slopes in Alpine locations, which revealed that maximum insolation was by no means just an issue of exposure to the south. Almost as a footnote, Dr. Wright reveals that many place names in Scotland incorporating ‘green’ elements derive from the Scottish Gaelic ‘grian’, meaning sun, sunlight or ‘countryside with a southern exposure’ [139].

The volume ends with a four-page ‘Sunnyside timeline’, containing seven sections of varying length that summarise the transition from ’a technical…legal concept to do with land tenure, evidenced in manuscripts since the twelfth century and already fully established by then’ to the popular house name in present-day Britain [146]. From the elegant villas of Victorian times a ‘trickle down the social scale to ever smaller houses occurred in the twentieth century, so that by the sun-worshipping decade of the 1930s, Sunnyside sparked a plethora of Sunnyholm, Sunnylea, Sunnywood and the like compounds’ [148].

The remaining half of the book comprises an appendix of pre-1400 house names from the City of London, Westminster and the immediate environs [150-177], a list of house names from William Porlond’s Book, 1418-40 [178-192], stagecoach names [193-198], and a thoroughly illustrated ‘Sunnyside gazeteer’ [199-251] that lists and comments upon North British Sunnysides together with national grid references and map extracts from the Ordnance Survey sheets or earlier cartographic sources, as appropriate. As well as showing the site of each Sunnyside farmstead or settlement, these maps reveal much about the agrarian context of the time. Thus diagrammatic representations of cultivation strips on maps from William Roy’s Military Survey of Scotland (1747-1755) contrast with straight-sided fields, resulting from enclosure of common fields or reclamation of moor or bog, indicated on nineteenth-century Ordnance Survey sheets. It would have been interesting to have some discussion of these varying agrarian milieux in the body of the text. Scottish ‘greens’ are listed in a final gazeteer [236-251]. A select bibliography presents the wide array of manuscripts, printed and on-line sources used in compiling this intriguing book that moves from medieval London to branches of non-conformism and Victorian villas, then back to historic solskifte and forward again to house names in our own time. This remarkable work of erudition is not for the faint hearted. The Sunnyside journey taken by Laura Wright is complicated, even labyrinthine, but sharing it with her is well worth the effort.



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