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Distribution of Town Fieldnames in Devon (History Section)

Mon. 21 February 2022 at 2:00 pm

To be held by Zoom video conferencing.

A talk “Distribution of Town Fieldnames in Devon” to be given by Claude Williams.

Background: Field-names contained in the Tithe Map documents c. 1840 for fields located near to and above the homestead are distributed unevenly across Devon, with most of these field-names located in the Tamar valley.  There, field-names for ‘above town’ occur in about half of all old farms that are larger than 10 hectares where the homestead is not located in a hamlet or village.  In contrast, such field-names are lacking in eastern Devon.  A graphical definition for these fields based on examples helps identify similar plots that have variations in spelling and associated word forms.  In addition to the difference in the use of language, there is a strong case for linking these field-names to the origin of the farm, many of which date to Saxon settlement.

Speaker: With an educational basis of M.S. in Chemical Engineering and an M.S. in Food Science, Claude Williams pursued a career in process automation as an engineering consultant in the USA, Canada, and the UK.  Field-names is a recent area of interest; research into this topic was partly enabled by pandemic lockdown.

Booking is essential. Please contact the organiser (details below) by 6 pm on Friday 18 February. Login details will be sent on Saturday 19 February to all those who have booked.

Report on the talk

Claude Williams moved to Devon from the USA almost 30 years ago and he is clearly a passionate supporter of his adopted county, and of Dartmoor in particular.

Claude’s interest started when he was walking in the Devon countryside and came across field names that included the word “town”. Most of the information in his research came from tithe maps of 1840 when the government needed to know who owned which field and what the purpose of the field was for taxation reasons.

The word “town” in this context does not mean “town” as we know it but rather a village, hamlet or farm. Communal land, divided into strips, surrounding a village or hamlet was available for the local population to feed themselves from Saxon times but gradually these became enclosed. Enclosures that occurred during medieval times were based on these strip fields but fields that were enclosed during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were larger and had straight lines. Therefore it is relatively easy to determine when such an enclosure took place. Claude’s talk concentrated on fields that had been enclosed in the earlier period.

The word “town” for field names occurs throughout Devon but most are in the east of the county. These include names such as “Town Other”, “Town Park”, “Townsend”. “Townsend “ is usually at the top of the village. At Bridgetown, Werrington there are several fields “above town”. There fields are called “Higher Above Town” and “Little Above Town”!

Changes in pronunciation occurred between 1400 and 1700 and also considering local dialects, some variations in spelling do occur. Field names including “bove”, “boo” and “bow” probably originate from “Above”. Bootown at Harford is above the farmstead, as is Bowdon at Ham, Dalton. In east Devon “bow” is predominant while in west Devon “bove” is more usual.

Claude’s analysis of field names and whether they referred to a farmstead or village and the results were interesting. Where the field names were “Above Town”, “Under Town” or “Compass Town” (ie had north, south, east or west in their title) between 90% and 95% referred to a farmstead whereas with “Townsend” only 15% to 20% referred to a farmstead, the majority with this name referring to a village or hamlet.

In general, field names differ either side of an imaginary line from Dartmouth to Barnstaple, and Claude speculated that reflected cultural differences.

Mark Twain believed that “Data is like garbage. You’d better know what you are going to do with it before you collect it.” Claude disagrees, believing “There is much pleasure to be gained from interesting data”.

Chris Reader
March 2022

The talk was recorded and is available on request to members (see this page).

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Mon. 21 February 2022
2:00 pm
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History Section


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