It is coming to the county that is the mealy-mouthed East Riding of Yorkshire that one finds oneself in need of a recap on exactly how England’s most disgustingly named towns and villages came into being. Let’s start with the assumption that the effrontery that is many of East Ridings of Yorkshire towns’ names began sometime between 5000BC and 4500BC.
One argument is that naming conventions may have commenced, seemingly not at great speed, by the nomadic Mesolithic stone-aged peoples. It was their realisation that hunting large animals as a pack was a somewhat arduous occupation, not to mention incredibly time-consuming and dangerous. Wouldn’t it be far better instead to maintain a hunter-gatherer way of life but from a central spot of convenience?
“Let’s stay in one place. We could call it ‘hom’”. This was probably not quite as eloquently the suggestion came out. Instead, there was probably much by way of guttural grunting in what I am sloppily describing as Old English as the tribes weighed up such a volte face in their way of being. My best guess is that a pregnant woman finally lost her shit and went on strike having had enough of waddling up and down dale (even though the East Ridings of Yorkshire are notably flat and fen-like). Back then, however, the county would have been vast tracts of bog and marsh making the waddling even more incommodious.
Given almost all collectives harbour at least one detractor who is the unofficial prophet of doom, I am presuming a number of naysayers screeched out, “It’ll never work!” or “But that’s not how we do things around here!” I bet it was quite the delicious drama to partake in. Despite the myriad of objections, the age of permanent settlements may have begun with these avant garde stone-aged folks. What remains unaccounted for is who was the trendsetter and how did all the other tribes catch on to such a revolutionary concept?
It is this quandary that leads to that other nomadic proposition: that agricultural workers from Europe drifted this way before intermingling with the locals, who seemingly just laid back and thought of England. Their migration also had them importing England’s first domesticated cows, sheep and goats. Pigs already existed in the shape of boars so they simply needed taming.
These European settlers are said to have introduced the annual sewing of such crops as wheat and barley, stripping the land of its natural ecology, and replacing it with managed swathes. This furnished the legacy of tending to land in order to feed not only the populace but also their now captive docile swine. Even today, The County of East Ridings of Yorkshire remains the pig-farming capital of England. That said, ‘Swine’ in this specific example of Yorkshire parlance is thought to derive from the Old English for creek - indisputably an essential ingredient for sustaining settled life, porcine or otherwise.
Obviously, the ideal residential plots had to be situated adjacent to all-year-round supplies of freshwater. Thankfully this was not challenging for the incumbents of the East Ridings of Yorkshire, the county being a gentle swampy buffer between the Yorkshire Dales and the coast. In fact, the primest of all prime retail sites were located on the many small islets that proliferated in the fens. These not only maximised one’s sense of protection but also thwarted an animal’s wild ambitions for absconding, thus reducing the need for fencing. In Old Norse such micro islands were called “Holmr” which have become modern days ‘Holms’ and probably very much akin to the ‘hams’ of the south. Naturally, as groups settled far and wide, dialects did their thing, and ‘homs’ bifurcated into ‘hams’ or ‘holms’. Thus, we have the beginnings of a north-south divide as well as the invention of ‘hamlets’.
This clustering of dwellings solved many difficulties and yet bred a whole host of new conflicts pertinently around capacity, ownership and entitlement. Not least, was the small matter of fencing: not the kind involving swords, but those regarding boundaries and barriers.
Naturally, one needed to confine one’s stock, but incidentally, by doing so, it created visible partitions conferring such spaces as ‘ours’ and ‘not ours, but perhaps one day’. No doubt such an invention as fencing also instigated the very first neighbour boundary dispute.
Incidentally, in the days of yonder “swell” meant much the same as it does today: to grow bigger; and without doubt, the radical change from a-wandering to a-staying stimulated a population boom. The hams expanded in every direction, with multiple houses gathered together in less than holy matrimony. “We’re bursting at the seams,” many a hamletter might have decried in now slightly less grunty tones. And if there is one thing that humankind always agreed on: size matters.
Societies thus needed some way of distinguishing themselves away from paltry simpleton hamlets of yesterday to reflect the multi-occupancy, multi-generational, multi-hutted megahams they now inhabited.
“Wicks” was the Germanic solution - meaning villages. Later on, the word came to denote a dairy farm. Nonetheless, this augmentation and specification of language capably demonstrates the increasing sophistication apparent both regarding beast and mankind.
Then, just like now, every village was thought to harbour its very own idiot. The now Neolithic wicks would likely also have an accuser bemoaning that the rest aren’t pulling their weight; a micro-manager nit-picking away over work production whilst achieving little themselves; a overblown show-off making phallic monuments; someone to gripe about the quality of the harvest or the food (probablyly both) and, of course, someone else to complain about the stench of the fly-ridden animals. Before long, a group of renegades thinking they could do better would up-sticks and off-sod to establish themselves a utopia elsewhere - creating the existence of “thorpes”, or wick-ships, or side-hamlets for want of a better term.
Other communities in their quest to maintain, or otherwise impose, peace, would call on the spiritual to remind all and sundry that morality, cohesion and harmony ought to be sought lest God spite one’s crops or flocks.
Failing that, it left the management to conjure up the much-derided, and very squirmy concept of team-building away-days. Only, they called them harvest festivals - gatherings of enforced fun and frivolity involving a maypole, some jingle bells and a few drums. All arranged at great expense in the vain hope that everyone would just work together nicely thereafter.
Naturally, In the event of that not working, one could always fall back on blaming the messengers of God:
Although in the interests of historical accuracy, it is oft-reported that the ‘burn’ in this instance is derived from the old English meaning ‘stream’. The nuns came much later, when there was a shortage of eligible bachelors, and during a time period when it was pontificated that idle hands made the devil’s workshop. That said, the nuns were still largely burnt to death at the hands of Henry VIII so the nomenclature was more of a foretelling than a recollection.
Over time, the thorpes and the wicks continue their relentless expansion, and somewhere down the line, lords of the manor were born. Of course, the more one has, the more one hankers for more. But it is equally true that the more one has, the more abjectly one fears loss. Thus, it was the engorged manor houses that came, by hook and crook, to dominate the ebb and flow of life of the surrounding settlements.
On occasion the hamlets, wicks and thorpes all needed to be distinguished from one another and where one hailed would dictate how much swing and sway one had. Some truly thrived in part through favour, yet others through an abundance of crops or simply because of their fortuitous location. Via the whim of the elements, fiefdoms rose and fell.
So it came to pass that some of the villages morphed into little towns with little markets: thriving little micro-economies of supply and demand. In turn, this generated the need for the efficiency of exchange and with that came the invention of hard currency. Just as much valued were the honed skills of bartering, negotiating and contracting. The more urbane the deal, the more one required the services of an educated elite. And with the educated elite, came the need for better remuneration. And that is how such enclaves of early commerce evolved into gloriously small towns, such as…
However, with population growth comes struggle. The powers that came to rule thought it was best, in some instances, to insist that like stock, one’s human resources be confined within a given proximity. Thereafter, man became beast: fed, watered and exploited. Such totalitarianism was formally constructed under the realm of William the Conqueror, but in existence long before the country’s complete annexation. Today this process of societal management is referred to as feudalism, yet another word that did not exist back in the 11th century.
Nonetheless, who heralded from where suddenly became of paramount importance in the hierarchy of life, and hamlets continued to spawn. Albeit oftentimes, it was simply enough to name a new dwelling place by relating it to a notable feature. Hence why many Yorkshire hamlets adopted the very simple suffix ‘by’ to denote their abode or hamlet. That said, plenty others argue the ‘by’ is a remnant of Old Norse for ‘law’ or ‘rule’, whereas others claim its Old Norse for farm: the vikings seemingly having tired of ham.
Of course, the many towns, villages and hamlets required much by way of food, and the production of food required much by way of cultivation of land. The cultivation of land demanded much by way of its man, woman and animal power. And with much man, woman and animal power, came much by way of the manufacturing of manure. And this all leads to the near-obsolete Yorkshire-ism of “where there’s muck, there’s….
So this is the tale of how it came to be that England’s sleepy little settlements became cultured. It was humans doing what humans do that led to the proliferation of settlements across these fair lands and no place more aptly demonstrates our relentless march towards civilisation than the ostentatiously-sounding County of the East Ridings of Yorkshire.
And if all of that fails to impress, then one can always claim one hails from …
Arguably so-called as it was a field where a legal dispute was settled. Who’d have thunk? Others claim it refers not so much to a moist penis, but a wet field because there really is nothing more straightforwardly Yorkshire than naming places as a result of their surroundings.