ISSN 1357-4442Editor: Simon Denison

Issue no 3, April 1995


Simon Denison talks to Margaret Gelling

Place-names at the barricades

Upton Cheyney, Cold Ash, Osgodby, Wath . . . the place-names of Britain are so varied and colourful that it is easy to appreciate their popular appeal. For some, they are perhaps just a collection of charming curios; but for others, place-names represent living history, records of ancient thinking, and pegs that fix the present landscape into the past.

Whatever the cause of our fascination, Margaret Gelling regularly attracts three-figure audiences to her place-name lectures, even in villages. `I had over a hundred at Chipping Campden,' she said. `At Chipping Campden! And there were 84 at Shipton-under-Wychwood . . . '

Despite the subject's popularity, however, only about a dozen place-name specialists work in Britain, of whom Dr Gelling, President of the English Place-Name Society, is perhaps the best known. Last month she received an OBE for her lifetime's work.

Now aged 70, Margaret Gelling has lived in Birmingham since 1953, first following her late husband - the archaeologist Peter Gelling - to the city when he was offered an academic job at the university, but now an Honorary Reader in her own right. `You know about Spaghetti Junction?' she asked, collecting me at the railway station and edging nervously out into the traffic. `It is the only modern place-name that evolved like a traditional name - just emerging rather than being named by an official. I can't think of any others. Can you?' (Any suggestions, please, on a postcard.)

We arrived at her home, a small 1930s semi in Harborne (there is no house-name). Everything is very neat and clean, suburban inside and out. `It's the Lancashire housewife in me,' she said. `I've got a bit prissy about everything being neat and tidy. I could never be Bohemian in my way of life. . .' Nothing prissy about her manner, though. She is eager, unselfconscious and voluble, and when she laughs - which she does frequently - she shows two rows of teeth and shrieks, and her eyes widen alarmingly.

Born into a `Manchester lower-middle class' family in 1924, she read English at St Hilda's, but neither expected Oxford to be glamorous nor found it so. `I thought of it as a seat of learning, in my [favourite word] prissy schoolgirl way. I would have been regarded as a swot.' However, she believes she `wasted her youth' at Oxford. She found English literature `dreadfully boring' and `a waste of time'. Even now, she claims no interest in poetry, or theatre, or cultural matters generally.

She joined the Communist Party, creating a good excuse for vigorous argument (which she loves) in her argumentative, right-wing family. Later she repented of her Communist affiliations but has remained `very left-wing'. She constantly spots opportunities for protest - such as yelling `stuff the poll tax' in a cathedral whispering gallery - but admits to never actually seeing them through to action. She regrets not having marched against Suez in 1956, persuaded out of it by her husband who didn't want her hauled off to jail.

Margaret Gelling joined the English Place-Name Society as a research assistant in 1946, in her first and only full-time job which lasted to 1953. Since then, her research has been mostly freelance and unpaid, but even so she has profoundly influenced the subject with her `left-wing instincts', revealing the extent to which Anglo-Saxon names were invented by ordinary people, not designated by figures in authority. In this she overturned the approach of the previous generation of scholars, such as Sir Frank Stenton, who `empathised with the ruling classes' and was more interested in `official' names such as Kington or Knighton (`royal manor' and `estate of the young retainers').

She also established the connection between Anglo-Saxon names and topography. `The Anglo-Saxons had about 40 words, for instance, that can be translated as hill, but there are no synonyms. All of the words refer to a different shape or size of hill. It is a vast and subtle code; but Sir Frank Stenton, bless him, described these names as "trivial and accidental". If you go out and use your eyes, you see that that is the most appalling mistake.'

Despite a rather schoolma'amish warning to archaeologists, in the introduction to her book Signposts to the Past, not to dabble in place-name interpretations without consulting the experts, Margaret Gelling preaches the need to question authority, and for subversion, on all occasions. So what would she be saying to the Queen, I asked, when she went the following week to collect her OBE? It would be such a splendid opportunity for protest.

`Oh . . . I shall be very polite,' she said with a wicked grin.

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