Give me some names

It’s been a pretty eventful weekend for Yr. Humble Chronicler. Long story short, on Saturday I done some politics, on Sunday I done some research. It’s now nearly bedtime, so I’m afraid today’s entry may be rather short. Don’t worry, there is much to speak of in the near future.

So, for now, just to make sure you don’t go away disappointed (I’m sure you were just aching for an entry on an amateurish blog to make your weekend complete), I’m going to answer a question that was put to me a little over a week ago. Namely, what’s with the names of the stations on the Docklands Light Railway?

The persons asking me this question were curious as to why the stations on the DLR have such bizarre names. Mudchute, Limehouse, Island Gardens, Cutty Sark, East India, Blackwall, Pudding Mill Lane, All Saints. Some of them are fairly obvious (Cutty Sark being named after the clipper Cutty Sark which is berthed there, London City Airport being named after London City Airport). Some not so much. One of the people asking the question was not from around here (being Icelandic) and so was at a particular disadvantage.

The reality is that, actually, most of the names are not that bizarre. They make perfect sense if you know the history of the area. Unlike many place names in London (Holborn, Islington, Euston) these “weird” ones are usually in plain, modern-day English, not commemorating some obscure aristo or long-vanished place.

The key to understanding many of these names is the fact that these are the Docklands – that is to say, the 19th century Port of London. The more exotic-sounding places are often so-called because, when the Docklands were still worthy of the name, they were served by vessels from that area. This accounts of East India, West India Quay, Cyprus and Canary Wharf (the Canary Islands, you see).

Others are named after features of the docks – this accounts for Pontoon Dock (named after a bridge rather than a pontoon, “pontoon” being derived from the French pont) and Custom House. Mudchute was simply a heap of mud, a dumping ground for the muck dredged out of the docks. Westferry was a ferry in the west (relatively speaking). Heron Quays were quays where herons might be seen. If you can’t work South Quay out then you have no business here.

The more regal names come from the fact that docks were often named after royalty. This accounts for King George V, Prince Regent, Royal Albert and Royal Victoria.

Bow Church and All Saints are both churches. Shadwell has a similarly holy name, being a contraction of “Saint Chad’s Well.”

Some are named in commemoration of local industrialists. Beck, Canning and Silver gave their names to Beckton, Canning Town and Silvertown respectively.

Some are derived from industrial practices no longer carried out there. Limehouse, that well-known den of vice and subversion, was once home to a number of lime kilns. One of the strangest names on the DLR is Pudding Mill Lane. However, it becomes saner once you realise that “pudding” was a term for offal (which survives, incidentally, in the term “black pudding”). A pudding mill was simply a place where said offal was processed. Woolwich Arsenal, of course, comes from the armaments factories that don’t exist any more – at least part of them is now a rather pricey-looking residential development. Woolwich’s arsenal, of course, had a football team that went pro and is now simply known as Arsenal.

Crossharbour is a modern name for a local development, as is London City Airport.

Poplar’s origins are not known for sure, but it’s suggested that there might once have been a poplar tree here that functioned as a local landmark.

Island Gardens is a Victorian pleasure garden on the Isle of Dogs. Hence, it does exactly what it says on the tin, as the kids say.

Cutty Sark, naturally, is named after the ship. The ship itself is named after a character in Burns’ poem Tam o’ Shanter, who in turn is named after her distinctive clothing. Cutty Sark, simply translated, means “short underwear.” There’s a puerile part of me that finds it amusing that there is a station commemorating a poor choice of undies.


Filed under 19th century, 20th Century, East End and Docklands, Geography, History, London, Rambling on and on, Thames, Transport

3 responses to “Give me some names

  1. Can I expand a little on your comment, that Woolwich arsenal “had a football team that went pro”.

    Woolwich Arsenal FC was the professional version of a term formed at the armaments factories, and they played in Plumstead, not Woolwich. They played in the first and second divisions of the Football League and were notable for being the first team to defy the Football Association and bring professional football to London.

    But the particular point we might note at this moment (March 2010) is that exactly 100 years ago the club went into administration. They were bought out by Henry Norris, the chairman of Fulham FC, and from that moment the new club was born.

    True to his agreement with the club Norris kept the club in Kent until 1913 when he moved the club to Highbury in north London.

    The story of the events 100 years ago is told in the novel (based on the diaries of a Fleet Street journalist) “Making the Arsenal”.

    • TGW

      Ah, thanks for clarifying. I’m afraid I’m not really a follower of sports, so I’m not the best person to talk about them.

  2. Pingback: The marriage of heron and hell | London Particulars

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