From Ipswich to Eye - the origins of 9 Suffolk town and village names

A sign welcomes drivers to Ipswich on Norwich Road.

A sign welcomes drivers to Ipswich on Norwich Road. - Credit: Archant

Suffolk has continuously been settled since the 5th century, so it’s no surprise its place names have changed countless times over the years.  

But how did we get the names we know today, and why are they so important?  

Monks Eleigh-based A.D. Mills is an Emeritus Reader in Medieval English at the University of London, a member of the Council of the English Place-Name Society and a member of the Society for Name Studies in Britain and Ireland.

He has spent years studying the origins and meanings of a variety of English place names, including those here in Suffolk.  

“Suffolk’s place names are the earliest recorded expression of its language and dialect,” he explains.  


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“Once their likely origins are explored and revealed, they yield important and fascinating glimpses into many aspects of Suffolk’s past, including its Romano-British legacy, its widespread colonisation from the 5th century onwards by Germanic tribes (mainly the Angles), its later Danish Viking settlements, its agricultural economy and its social history.” 

With the help of Suffolk historian Charlie Haylock, A.D. Mills explores nine Suffolk place names and their meanings.  

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Ipswich  

It only makes sense to start this list off with our county town of Ipswich – but do you know why it’s called that?  

“It possibly refers to the harbour or trading centre (taken from the Old English 'wīc') of a man with the personal name of ‘Gip’,” explains A.D. Mills.  

“Alternatively, ‘Gip’ could be from the Old English ‘gipe(s)’ or ‘gype’, meaning ‘opening gap’, referring to the wide estuary of the River Orwell. In the early days, ‘Gip’ was pronounced as ‘Yip’ with a soft ‘g’. The current spelling of Ipswich is first on record in the 13th century.” 

Prior to this, the settlement was recorded as ‘Gipes wic’ in a 993 version of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, and in the Domesday Book of 1086 as ‘Gipeswic’, ‘Gypeswiz’, and ‘Gepeswiz’. In a 12th century edition of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, the town was called ‘Gipeswic’ and ‘Gypeswic’. 

“Ipswich was originally pronounced as ‘Yipswich’, as A.D. Mills states, with a soft ‘g’, and it’s believed by some historians that when the Normans completed the Domesday Book and saw the letter ‘g’, they pronounced it as Gipperswick - hence the two pronunciations in the town today, for instance with Gipperswick Park. 

In addition, Charlie has also seen maps showing Ipswich spelled as ‘Ypswich’ as late at the 1700s. 

Felixstowe's town sign, shown here during its 35th anniversary of twinning with Wesel and 15th with Salzwedel

Felixstowe's town sign, shown here during its 35th anniversary of twinning with Wesel and 15th with Salzwedel - Credit: Sarah Lucy Brown

Felixstowe 

Records show that prior to being called Felixstowe, this seaside town was once named ‘Filchestou’ in 1254, and later ‘Filchestowe’ in 1291. But how did that evolve into Felixstowe?  

“This most likely came from the holy or assembly place (taken from the Old English word ‘stōw’) of a man called ‘Filicia’. This is probably an anglicisation of St Felix, the first Bishop of East Anglia c.630-648 with whom of course the place is associated. Bede’s Ecclesiastical History c.731 mentioned this as the site where St Felix established his see. The current form of the place name does not appear until early 16th century however,” explains A.D.  

Alpheton's sign

Alpheton's sign - Credit: Geograph/Geographer

Alpheton  

This tiny village’s origins go all the way back to the 11th century according to A.D. Mills, who says: “This is one of the four Suffolk places named after an Anglo-Saxon female landowner.  

“In this case, possibly to be associated with a known historical figure, a lady called Elflet or Alflet, who was mentioned in the Domesday Book as holding estates in this area in 1066.” 

The Old English word ‘tūn’ means ‘farmstead’ or ‘estate’. Previously recorded iterations of Alpheton include ‘Alfledetun’, ‘Alflede(s)ton’ and ‘Alfeton’. 

Beccles' town sign

Beccles' town sign - Credit: Barry Pullen/citizenside.com

Beccles 

According to A.D. Mills, Beccles combines the Old English word for ‘pasture’ (lǣs) with the word ‘stream’ (bece), which could be in reference to its location on the River Waveney.  

“Alternatively, it could stem the Celtic for ‘the little court’, from ‘bacc’ and ‘lïss’,” he adds.  

Beccles has previously been recorded as ‘Becles’ in the 1086 Domesday Book, and later in 1157 as Beclis.  

Dallinghoo's village sign 

Dallinghoo's village sign - Credit: Simon Parker

Dallinghoo 

Just outside of Woodbridge is the village of Dallinghoo, which has previously been called ‘Dallingahou’ and ‘Delingahou’ in the 1086 Domesday Book, and ‘Dalingeho’ in 1150. 

It is thought the Old English name means the ‘hill spur (hōh) of the family or followers (inga) of a man with the personal name of ‘D(e)all’. 

“The Old English word for ‘hill spur’ - ‘hōh’ - also appears in the derivation of Culpho, Hoo Green, Iken(ho), Wixoe, and of course the world-famous Sutton Hoo,” adds Charlie. 

Woolpit, which translates to 'the pit for trapping wolves'

Woolpit, which translates to 'the pit for trapping wolves' - Credit: Mark Bullimore

Woolpit 

Woolpit was once referred to as ‘Wlpit’ in a 13th century copy of an Anglo-Saxon charter dated c.1000. It was then later called ‘Wlfpeta’ in the 1086 Domesday Book, and ‘Wulpettas’ in the 11th century.

“The name comes the Old English ‘wulf-pytt’, which means ‘the pit(s) for trapping wolves,” explains A.D. 

This can clearly be seen referenced on Woolpit’s village sign, which shows a wolf depicted on the right-hand side. 

Bury St Edmunds' sign

Bury St Edmunds' sign - Credit: Archant

Bury St Edmunds  

This Suffolk cathedral town has gone through a few names over the centuries, with ‘Byrig’ first recorded in a 1035 Anglo-Saxon will, and later as ‘Sancta Eadmundes Byrig’ in 1038.  

“The fortified town, or ‘byrig’ in Old English, is associated with St Ēadmund, the 9th century king of the East Angles who was killed by the Danish Vikings in 869.

"He quickly became revered as a martyr, and his remains were brought to a small monastery here in 870, hence the reference to ‘Sanctæ Eadmundes stow’ in an 11th century copy of an Anglo-Saxon charter,” explains A.D.  

“This is another case of where the ‘g’ was pronounced softly as a ‘y’, so ‘byrig’ is pronounced as ‘birry’,” adds Charlie.  

Ramsholt 

Ramsholt was once ‘Ramesholt’ in the 1086 Domesday Book, and later ‘Ramisholt’ in 1291.  

“Its name most likely refers to the wood or thicket (‘holt’ in Old English) where wild garlic grew (‘hramsa’ in Old English),” explains A.D. 

Eye 

This market town’s origins go all the way back to 1086, when it was first called ‘Eia’ in the 1086 Domesday Book, and later ‘Eye’ in 1103. Its name comes from the Old English ‘ēg’, which means ‘the place at the island of dry or higher ground in a marshy area’. 

“This is another example of where the ‘g’ was pronounced softly as a ‘y’, as in ‘Yipswich’ (Gipeswic). In this case, ‘ēg’ is pronounced ‘eye’. Even today, there are many words in the English language where the ‘g’ is pronounced as a ‘y’, such as ‘reign’, ‘eight’, ‘neighbour’, ‘night’, and ‘align’,” explains Charlie.  

“Ēg also appears in the derivations of Bawdsey, Bungay, Campsea Ashe, Kersey, Lindsey, Nayland and Thorney Green.” 

Suffolk Place Names - Their Origins and Meanings by A.D. Mills is out now.  

How many of these did you know? Or is there a Suffolk place name you wish to know the meaning of? Email danielle.lett@archant.co.uk to get in touch.  

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