Would Penge by any other name smell as sweet?

Local historian Martin Spence explores the origins of the P-word

Let’s face it, Penge is widely regarded as a bit of a joke, and a lot of that is down to its name. But why exactly is the name thought to be so funny? Is it because it’s a single syllable? Is it the dialectical interplay between the initial plosive ‘P’ and the extended nasal ‘enge’? I have no idea. But those of us who choose to live here must simply learn to live it.

In fact, Penge is a very unusual place-name: the only pre-English, British place-name in Greater London. As we’d expect, most places around here have English names: Beckenham, Bromley, Croydon, Dulwich and Sydenham are all modern versions of good old English place-names which go back to Anglo-Saxon times. But Penge is older still. It derives from the British language spoken by the native population before the Anglo-Saxon settlement, the language from which modern Welsh is descended.

The name has two parts. The ‘Pen’ part means ‘head’ or ‘hill’ or ‘high’ or possibly ‘end’. The ‘ge’ part is a squashed survival of the word ‘coed’ which means ‘wood’. If Penge’s name were English, it would be something like Woodhill, or Woodhead, or Woodend, or High Wood, all of which would be sort of OK, but much less interesting, less exotic, than Penge.

How did this ancient British place-name survive so long? We know that this whole area was heavily wooded (it was part of the Great North Wood, remembered in ‘Norwood’), so maybe it was a sort of refuge, where British-speakers kept their own language alive while most of their neighbours came to speak English.

There are other place-names in South London which hint at the same thing. The ‘Camber’ in ‘Camberwell’ may be related to ‘Cymry’ which is the modern Welsh word for Welsh people. And in nearby ‘Walworth’ the ‘Wal’ element may be related to the word ‘Welsh’ itself. The implication is that, during the Anglo-Saxon settlement, English only became the dominant language very slowly, and for a while there was an ethnic and linguistic patch-work, with some British-speaking communities hanging doggedly on. And in one case – the case of Penge – the British place-name hung on for so long, and became so familiar to English-speakers as well, that it stuck.

Penge enters written history as ‘Paenge’ in a charter of 957, issued by King Eadwig:

Herto ge byreo se pude pe hatte Paenge . seofen milen . seofen furlang . and seofen fet embeganges. (“Hereto belongeth the wood that is called Penge, seven miles and seven furlongs and seven feet round about”).

The place to which Penge ‘belonged’ was the manor of Battersea, which then occupied a large swathe of South London. Battersea owned Penge for its woods, valuable both for grazing animals, and as a source of timber for building.

Incidentally, this link between Penge and Battersea continued for the next 900 years. Even today you can see a metal boundary post in Upper Norwood which reads ‘Battersea 1854’. This seems insane given that Battersea is nearly ten miles away. But in 1854 the post was quite correct: it was marking the boundary between Penge – then a “detached hamlet of Battersea” – and Croydon.

After 957, Penge’s next documentary appearance was in a charter of 1067. In that year, fresh from his victory at Hastings, William the Conqueror gave Battersea to the Abbot of Westminster – which meant that the Abbot was also entitled to “the hunting of the Wood which appertains to Battersea”, that wood being Penge.

There is another oblique reference in the Domesday Book of 1086, where Battersea’s wealth is said to include “wood for fifty hogs of pannage” – that is to say, enough acorn-producing woodland to graze fifty pigs. Again, this must be Penge, because Penge was the only extensive woodland that Battersea possessed.

An intriguing document from King John’s reign records a legal settlement between the Abbot of Westminster, and William de Ginnei and his wife Matilda from Beckenham. The settlement stated that “his wood of Pange” belonged to the Abbot; but it also granted William and Matilda, alone among Beckenham residents, extensive rights to graze their pigs, cattle and sheep in the woods. This looks like a pretty good result for a middle-ranking couple up against one of the most powerful churchmen in the land.

Even 400 years later, when Penge started to appear on printed maps, it was still identified as a wooded, rural, ‘green’ place. In John Speed’s 1610 map of Surrey it is shown as ‘Pensgreene’, and in John Rocque’s map of 1746 the cluster of houses around the Crooked Billet appears as ‘Penge Green’, with Penge Common stretching round to the north and west.

So, the next time some idiot pokes fun at Penge, you can round on them and say:

Aha! The joke is on you, my friend! For Penge is a unique survival from the ancient British tongue which is ancestral to modern Welsh!! I wonder if you can laugh at that!!!”.

And you will find that indeed they can.


You can read more about the history of Penge in Martin’s terrific book ‘The Making of a London Suburb: Capital Comes to Penge’, available in local bookshops and online.

'Would Penge by any other name smell as sweet?' have 3 comments

  1. 23rd July 2017 @ 11:20 am maria

    Love your website about Penge – because we have been trying to find our familys connection to a smuggler been doing a little bit of digging and surrpised there was some truth in my dads family being little proud to be connected to a French? family, teh Pagetts

    John Pagett and his wife in late 1700s living at a freehold estate Roystens on Penge Common – would be very interested if you know something about this? It was put for sale in 1817 by Mary because of all the things about to happen in the area – the document talks about a newly built cottage and having commons rights. John Pagett – gave his place of birth as Hog Island


    • 23rd July 2017 @ 8:52 pm Martin Spence

      Dear Maria,
      Thanks for your message. Very interesting. I don’t have any info on the Pagett family I’m afraid, but your 1817 document sounds fascinating. By then the Croydon Canal had come through Penge, aiming to set up an active trade between here and the Thames. It turned out not to be a great commercial success, but no-one knew that at the time, and people may have been worried about its impact.
      Also there had been various attempts to enclose (privatise) Penge Common, and it finally happened in 1828. Your family were clearly regular property-owners with written proof of title, and commoners rights. If they had been here when the Common was enclosed they would probably have received a parcel of land gratis.
      Finally you mention ‘Roystens’. I wonder if it is related to today’s Royston Road, which is right at the south-east edge of Penge, alongside the River Willmore which marked the ancient boundary? Royston Road still houses the Royston Social Club, which is where Peggy Spencer used to run her dancing school in the 50s/60s. Very much part of local legend.
      That’s about all that occurs. Thanks again for making contact.
      Martin Spence


      • 24th July 2017 @ 10:39 am maria

        Thank you – i think it must be. We live down on the south coast – so finding this site is good

        Found on Wikepedia that Roysten is also a town in Hertfordshire whose name comes from ‘Roisia’s Cross – a cross in Royston, at the crossroads of Ermine Street and the Icknield Way – most likely it was in the southeast angle of the crossroads in the parish of Barkway. This was in the fee of the Lordship of Newsells. The first recorded owner was Eudo Dapifer, steward to William the Conqueror’.

        Maybe this connects to the time of William the Conquerer you have written ahout. In 1817 the property was being sold.


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