What’s In A Name?

Rose Wheat


Several years ago I presented a weekly local history spot on BBC Radio Stoke called ‘What’s In A Name?’ As the title suggests, the aim of the series was to investigate and then explain, in a five-minute broadcast, the background to North Staffordshire place and street names. Few of us, I suspect, give much thought as to why our village, estate, avenue etc. should have been designated as it is.

Of course, the origins of some are fairly evident; we could all make an intelligent guess at the rationale behind Silverdale, Dresden, and Victoria Street. Others, however, are less obvious and behind many of them lie clues to long-vanished landmarks, stories of local personalities and the commemoration of national or international events which, for a while at least, seized the public imagination. I wonder how many of the inhabitants of Mafeking Street in Etruria recall the stirring tale of Baden-Powell’s defence of this South African town against the Boer insurgents. Does anyone living in Green Street, Stoke, remember the foresighted Stoke councillor who warned that federation of the pottery towns would result in the supremacy of Hanley and the consequent decline of Stoke? It must be many years since residents of Werrington fetched their water from a spot in Washerwall Lane, but the name remains, though the well has been replaced by taps, pipes and washing machines. These are just three examples of the many topics revealed by a little research instigated by street signs or references on an ordnance survey map. Evidence of industrial activity, religious conflict, personal bravery and even treacherous murder has all come to light following the trail of a local street name. But what of Audley? What information on its past can be gleaned from its contemporary streets and alleys, its signposts looking back into history?

It’s necessary to go back a millennium to the Saxon era in order to discover the origins of Audley itself. When William the Conqueror dispatched his Commissioners throughout England in 1086 to compile a record of his territory, the Domesday Book, the Norman scribes entered the name of ALDIDELEGE on their list and noted that the small settlement was worth ten shillings. It has been estimated that throughout the ages there have been at least twenty-four different ways of spelling the name of the village, but the roots of each can be traced to the ownership of a field or pasture LEAH/LEY by an Anglo-Saxon woman known as ALDGYP or ALDGE. Allowing for the idiosyncratic spelling of English until relatively recent times, it is not too difficult to see how the original placename ultimately became Audley and was adopted as their family name by the Lords of the Manor in the twelfth century. Created barons soon after, this rich and prestigious family established their seat at Heighley Castle nearby and over the succeeding centuries enjoyed mixed fortunes. Amongst their number it is worth noting that one became a founder member of the Order of the Garter, whilst others less fortunate were executed for choosing the wrong side in the various civil wars and royal disagreements which were so common in the distant past. In the twentieth century the title was still in existence and the 23rd Baron married Sarah, one of the daughters of Sir Winston Churchill.

The Barons Audley, however, are not the only notable family to be commemorated in the village and surrounding area. Both a street name and a pub sign serve to remind us that during the nineteenth century the Boughey family were the local bigwigs. Although they actually resided at Aqualate Hall in Shropshire, by 1800 the Bougheys owned most of the land in Audley parish and were the last Lords of the Manor. Their wealth was derived not only from land but from the coal and iron mines which put them amongst the leading industrial magnates of North Staffordshire.

Not quite in the same league, but nevertheless another family which left its mark on Audley and elsewhere in the county were the Vernons. Although the neighbourhood secondary school remembers Sir Thomas Boughey, it was a Vernon who founded a free grammar school at Audley in 1611 when he gave £120 towards its maintenance and that of ‘a sufficient learned and godly school master’. The grammar school he founded as long since disappeared, but Vernon Avenue may be a deserved reminder of the Reverend Edward Vernon’s generous gift. However, there is an alternative view that the Vernons in question were the two generations of doctors who lived opposite the top of Vernon Avenue at Highfield House, and owned the land upon which this 1950s housing development begins. Dr. Richard Vernon (1817-1914) and his son Dr. John James Vernon (1861-1944) both practised in Audley and were successively Medical Officers to Audley Council from 1873 to the 1920s. They gave land for the building of nearby Vernon Place Wesleyan chapel. When the local authority named the avenue it is more likely that they considered these two respected public servants as worthy of commemoration. Furthermore, in Booth Street the educational link continues, as one Daniel Booth was a governor of the aforementioned free grammar school as late as 1873, continuing the family tradition of service to the community begun in 1838 when John Booth served as Audley’s representative to the Newcastle Union Board of Guardians.

Audley street names also ensure that those who have contributed to the spiritual life of the village are not forgotten. Since the first decade of the nineteenth century, Methodism has flourished in the locality and Rileys Way commemorates the man who could justifiably be called the ‘father’ of Wesleyan Methodism in Audley. Daniel Riley and his wife settled at Hullocks Pool Farm around 1808 when they allowed their home to be used for preaching and class meetings. Their example encouraged others to do likewise and such was the success of their efforts that in 1810 a chapel was constructed by their co-religionists in what is now aptly called Chapel Street. However, close to Audley Church runs a lane which serves as a constant reminder of perhaps the most famous of Audley’s religious ministers, Wilbrahams Walk.

The Reverend Charles Philip Wilbraham was a colourful character who left his individual mark on the face of Audley. He was no poor clergyman barely making ends meet on a meagre stipend, but a member of one of Cheshire’s most ancient families and a close relative of Lord Egerton. In many ways, he resembled the churchmen we find in Jane Austen’s novels, who dominated village life by the force of their personality, bolstered by a comfortable private income. A friend of the future prime minister, Mr Gladstone, Audley’s vicar was a much-travelled man. Every year he holidayed abroad, visiting such far-flung places as North America, Scandinavia, India, Africa, the Crimea and most of Europe; and each year when he returned from his travels he gave lectures to the villages describing the countries he had visited. Indeed these talks were so popular that he was invited to speak up and down the country - a sort of nineteenth century Alan Whicker!

But it shouldn’t be thought that all his time was devoted to satisfying his wanderlust, or all his money either. During his time as Vicar of Audley, from 1844-74, several new schools were built in the area, some of them maintained and supported at his expense. His building efforts weren’t just confined to schools, for Wilbraham was responsible for restoring Audley Church, both inside and out, and a grand stained-glass window was dedicated in his honour. Moreover, in addition to the ordinary daily round of parochial duties, his position as minister to a mining village sometimes involved him in far more painful tasks. After the Talke Colliery disaster of 1866, when ninety-one miners were killed in an explosion, he sat on the committee which raised £16,000 for the relief of their dependents and preached special sermons in several local churches, appealing for contributions to the accident fund. After thirty years incumbency, he resigned his living and went to live at Penkridge, having turned down the office of bishop in one of our many colonies, despite his life-long interest in missionary work. His views on converting the native populations were quite in keeping with those of his contemporaries: ‘The souls of men should be cared for whether they desire it or not...’ Perhaps it is as well he didn’t venture into the jungle; as many British missionaries found to their cost, not every subdued colony liked having Christianity forced upon them!

Until recently, coal mining has been a staple industry of the district for centuries and Audley has suffered more than its share of mining disasters. The one at Diglake Pits, which occurred on the 14th January 1895, is one of the best recorded and Diglake Street stands as a permanent memorial to the seventy-seven men and boys who died on that terrible day. On this occasion, the fatal accident was not due to an explosion but happened when miners broke through into abandoned workings, releasing a torrent of flood water which trapped them underground. Miners in one seam were able to swim or wade to safety, but despite initial hopes that the trapped men could be rescued, this proved impossible to accomplish and they were eventually entombed in the pit. It’s a sad reflection on human nature that, less than a week after the disaster, the North Staffs Railway Company was running excursions to Audley from the Potteries for sightseers as well as for those who wished to visit their families. Sadly, it’s all too reminiscent of those who today still flock to scenes of great misfortune or horror to gawp.

On one occasion during my days at Radio Stoke, it was decided that I should present that week’s ‘What’s in a Name?’ from the appropriate location. Arthur Wood, then the education producer, and I duly trekked up the A500 to a spot in the neighbourhood of Audley, which on our map was intriguingly marked Parrott’s Drumble. There, in muddy shoes and laddered tights, with microphone held against the babbling brook (for atmosphere and to prove we were really there!), I proceeded to tell the tale of Richard Parrott, after whom the dingle, or drumble, was named.

As all family historians for miles around Audley will know, Richard Parrott’s survey of that parish and the hamlet of Talke is absolutely invaluable for those researching their family tree. Written in 1733, his notes on property, land and its owners throughout the district over the previous two hundred years make it essential reading for all genealogists. In addition, the local historian can learn a great deal about the trades and occupations of the area, religious affiliations, local characters and plain old gossip, from the observations and astute comments of this eighteenth century gentleman who lived on an estate at Bignall Hill and was a churchwarden of Audley Church.

I think we all have our favourite extracts from Parrott’s ‘word-picture’ of early modern Audley. One story that has stayed in my mind is that of poor old Mr Lunt who

was a diligent laborious man and very sober’. He constantly went to church and was a very cautious liver until about 70 years of age, then went madd and was kept bound until he died at about 80 years old...’

There’s no justice, or is the moral ‘gather ye rosebuds while ye may’? I’m also fascinated, but rather appalled, at the career change of the local shoemaker who ‘took up the profession of a doctor and bone setter and practised it soe long as he lived’. Kill or cure? And what about the woman who ‘calls herself’ a widow? You can almost see the nudge and the wink!

I’m sure that there are many other streets, farms and even fields, whose names deserve investigation. This short article merely attempts to explain a few and hopefully to whet the appetite for further research by interested local historians. I look forward to reading the results of their work in future editions of this journal.

Next: Audley and Staffordshire Advertiser