‘Catsbrain’ and ‘Breakheart’: The fascinating history of field names

on Monday, 21 September 2015. Posted in Archives

If you have ever spent time looking at the history of your town or village, or even used a map to go for a country walk you may have come across intriguing or unusual field names. But had you ever thought about what these names might tell you about the history of the field and its use over the centuries?

Field names can provide a link between the modern population and its predecessors; a bridge between history and place.

Field names are often made up of two separate words, for example, North Field, a different structure to most place names. To find out the meaning of a name, it is often necessary to try and find its earliest use. Field names can sometimes be traced back to Saxon times!

Names can draw their influence from the agricultural background of the site, its size and location, the lie of the land, its soil, crops, livestock, wild animals and plants, buildings, land ownership amongst many other things.

Sometimes the modern name can be unfamiliar; Catsbrain (which is found several times in Wiltshire – at Broad Chalke, Idmiston, Chisledon and Somerford for example) refers to the kind of soil on the site (rough clay mixed with stones). The reason for the name is obscure, older forms being Catesbragan (13th century), Cattesbrain (16th century), and Catesbruyne furlong (17th century).

Sometimes there are no early forms of the name, particularly if it’s more of a nickname; Fill Tubs, Butter Leaze, Helps Well. Often these kinds of nicknames are uncomplimentary: Bad Mead, Beggar Hay, Breakheart, Hunger Hill, Little Profit… presumably referring to poor agricultural value. Remote fields are often known by names of far-flung places such as Botany Bay, Jericho, and New Zealand. They can also be ironic - very small fields named Hundred Acres (for example at All Cannings, Urchfont and Whiteparish), and others like The City, or Little London (at Oaksey) etc.

There could be reference to the ownership of the land (e.g. Parsons Acre), or disputed ownership (No Man’s Land, Whose Land). Names could reference animals and plants or crops; for instance Bull Mead at Castle Combe, or Lammas Hay at Downton. Lammas is a common name and refers to lands under cultivation until Lammastide (August 1st – refers to the wheat harvest) after which the lands returned to common pasture until spring.

‘Furlang’ (or its variations) is also common, being a name for the division of a common field. This is inherited from the open field system (prior to the enclosures). The heyday of the open field system was around 1350, when it covered nearly one third of England. This was a collective system of strip cultivation with strips in open spaces belonging to individual farmers, who shared their labour and allowed animals to graze across the common pasture. The strips were aggregated into furlongs, which formed fields. It is from these field systems that you might see the remnants of historic ridge and furrow ploughing as visible wave-like undulations in the ground.

By the early 18th century many open-field areas had been privatised, and the rest disappeared over the next 140 years through the Enclosure Acts. Strip cultivation was replaced with grids of large straight-edged and enclosed fields surrounded by hedges or walls. Hedges were prevalent before the enclosure, indeed the earliest record of hedge planting is from Old English charters recording ‘the hedge row that Aelfric made’ at Kington Langley, Wiltshire in 940. Nevertheless between 1750 and 1850 more than 200,000 miles were planted, equalling the total for the previous 500 years. There was little change the number of hedgerows until 1945 (Oliver Rackham, in his ‘Illustrated History of the Countryside’, states that aerial photographs of 1940 shows an almost complete network of hedges) after which date many hedges were destroyed.

The first instance of enclosure was during the period 14th-17th centuries with landowners converting arable land over to sheep. Enclosure was one of the issues raised in the Peasant’s Revolt of 1381. By Kett’s rebellion of 1549 enclosure was a more prominent issue, and in the early 17th century the term ‘leveller’ and ‘digger’ emerged to describe those who levelled, and protested against, the new enclosure ditches, fences and hedges. The final, and the most contentious, land enclosures in England occurred between 1750-1850. The purpose of these enclosures was not to turn arable land into lucrative pasture, but to ‘improve’ land to become more productive and increase efficiency. Whatever the arguments for or against enclosure and the privatisation of common resources, the associated documentation of enclosure provides us with a useful source.

Enclosure Awards recorded the ownership and distribution of the lands enclosed alongside landed endowments of churches, schools and charities, as well as roads, rights of way, drainage, the ownership of boundaries, different types of land tenure, and liability to tithe (The National Archives).

Similarly the tithe surveys (normally of the late 1830s –mid 1840s following the passing of the Tithe Commutation Act of 1836) provide a detailed resource for the family and local historian. The surveys were designed to improve the system of financial support for parish priests and formalised the payment of tithes in cash rather than payment in kind (such as wool, crops or milk). It was based on the land people owned, and so the resulting maps usefully link the land to its owner and occupier of the time. You can view any surviving tithe maps here at the History Centre, and there is an ongoing, exciting project to digitise them – Know Your Place West of England

Field names act as a memorial, telling the story of a place (further examples include ‘Butts’ which indicates a place where medieval locals practised archery, while ‘Walk’ may well refer to land formerly given to common grazing of sheep.) Whether investigated as part of a community project, through simple curiosity about your local area or family history, or maybe even looking for inspiration for an appropriate house name; old field names can connect you with the history of your area.

Naomi Sackett, Records Assistant


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