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KEVIN DIXON: What's in a Torquay name?

By This is SouthDevon  |  Posted: February 19, 2013


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The origins of many of Torquay’s place names are now forgotten. Nevertheless, it’s possible to establish likely meanings and to look at how these names began.

Many local names are word pictures of the distant past. There are two main categories: the names of settlements and names which distinguish nearby features from each other.

Yet, much of the research on place names remains educated guesswork, so readers are welcome to suggest alternative origins.

Some place names are fairly straightforward. Torquay is the most obvious: the hill by the quay. 'Tor' is probably a Celtic-Saxon term from the Welsh twr and Saxon torr - a high rocky outcrop.

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When people started calling the Saxon settlement of Torre by the name ‘Torquay’ has been long debated. What we do know is that both Paignton and Brixham are around 700 years older.

The earliest mention of ‘Torre Key’ is in a chart of the reign of Henry VIII.

Another piece of evidence is from 1577 when the Catholic martyr Cuthbert Mayne (who has a Torquay school named after him) was executed in Launceston marketplace. He was hanged, drawn, and quartered and, as was the tradition, one quarter of his body was ordered to be set up on a pole at ‘Torquey’.

The area around the original Saxon manor of Torre is still known as Tormohun. It acquired this name in 1242 when the manor passed to William de Mohun on his marriage to Alicia, daughter of William Briwere.

Indeed, we owe many of our place-names to the Saxons who developed agriculture in Devon and divided the Bay up into large farms. Some Celtic names do survive but mainly to describe natural features.

So the names that occur in the Bay often refer to their first use and can be associated with an original owner. For example, hamm is an enclosure or meadow: Brixham being originally ‘Brioc’s enclosure’.

Names with ton endings are common. The older form tun meant ‘a large enclosed farm’.

The earliest settlers banded together for mutual defence, and were led by powerful men: so Cockington was Coccingtun, ‘the farm of Cocca’s people’.

It’s been suggested that later, less significant, farms lost their ingtun status. So we have Chelston, which was possibly Ceola’s tun, though there was a ‘Chilestone’ mentioned in 1238.

On the other hand, it’s been proposed that Chelston is a version of ‘Shelfstone’, referring to the site of a Neolithic tomb. Neolithic stone axes from between 4000-2200BC have been found near Chelston Towers, so the site was certainly occupied for thousands of years.

Other names just say where the farm was: Upton was Uppe Tun, the higher farm.

A wic was a nobleman's house or manor, and attached was often the barton, an enclosed courtyard which contained hay ricks and stores associated with farming. From this we get Barton.

The types of farming taking place can also be identified. The term sceap gehaeg, sheep enclosure, became Shiphay.

As Torquay is built on seven hills, we also have many valleys. Hence, 'coombe’, which derives from the Welsh cwm' and Saxon cumb.

Occombe could then be ‘Oak Valley’; Babbacombe, ‘Valley of Babba’; Watcombe, ‘Valley of Wat’; Hollacombe (Holh Cumb), ‘Hollow Valley’; and Ellacombe (Ellen Cumb), ‘Elder Tree Valley’.

The origin of Hele Village is uncertain. Hele comes from helan or celare, ‘to hide or to keep secret’. It could be referring to the location of a hidden valley. Later hele acquired another meaning, ‘to cover roots or seeds with earth; to cover with slates or tiles.’

Across the valley and the heavily quarried cutting that is now the Teignmouth Road is Daison Rock. Intriguingly, it's been suggested that the word Daison derives from the Old English daegsan meaning 'a sacrificial stone'.

There’s a few Warboroughs around Devon. The term comes from weard beorg, ‘the watchers hill’. In Torquay, Warborough gradually became Warberry.

Wielle refers to a spring and any settlement associated with it. Hence, Edginswell is ‘Ecgwulf’s spring’.

Walk down Fleet Street and beneath your feet you may still be able to hear the fleot or creek.

Further towards Paignton - originally Paegingtun, ‘the farm of Paega’s people’ - is Corbyn’s Head.

Some local guides say that Corbyn Head is named after a notorious local pirate, Samuel Corbyn, who is said to have been hanged there. However, a grant to Torre Abbey in 1196 mentions twyveldeclive by corvenasse. That’s ‘the double cliff by the carven headland’.

Beyond Corbyn Head is Livermead, from laefer mead, ‘the meadow of the wild iris’.

Even further is Preston, ‘Preosta Tun’, the priest’s farm. This was likely to have been a priest’s colony or mission station.

So, the real meanings of names are forgotten after a time. Indeed, it may be that we are now changing the names of places at a far more rapid pace.

For example, if you’re under 25, the following directions may make no sense at all:

“Drive past the Haldon Centre, turn right at the old Job Centre, past the Pickwick, round the back of Woolworths and John Menzies, round the GPO Roundabout, past the Odeon and park outside the Falcon, EJs or the Mousetrap".

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  • DocTorre  |  February 20 2013, 7:38AM

    Cheers ST, I tend just to concentrate on Torquay's history. Local government reorganisation has sometimes promoted the idea that Brixham, Paignton and Torquay are one big conurbation when we are really three distinct towns, each having its own personality. There's some fine local historians in Paignton and Brixham so I'll let them respond on the Paignton Pudding. However, I did come upon this: http://tinyurl.com/b8ryrsl It could be a great tradition to revive...

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  • Sinjis_Things  |  February 19 2013, 5:53PM

    Interesting stuff as usual from Mr Dixon. I read somewhere a few years ago about the "Paignton pudding" and I wonder if he could enlighten us.

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