London Boroughs: Etymology Explained

21st May 2024 Joe Graham London Life, News and Events

Discover the rich history and politics of London’s boroughs. This blog delves into the fascinating stories behind their names, where you can learn why some are named after lambs, chalk, brambles, and woodlands! 

Etymological map of london boroughs
London Borough Map

The etymology of London Boroughs

In 1963, the London Government received Royal Assent, heralding a transformative era in London’s political landscape. Join us on a journey through the fascinating world of London’s boroughs as we uncover the captivating stories behind their names and delve into their etymology.

How many Boroughs are in London?

There are 32 boroughs in London. However, The City of London, the 33rd division, is not a borough.

What are the safest London Boroughs?

When considering safety, the top boroughs in London are based on crime statistics and the happiness of its residents. Data from the London Metropolitan Police shows which areas have the lowest crime rate.

Richmond Upon Thames

With its scenic green spaces and rive, Richmond Upon Thames has a low crime rate and is considered safe for students.


If you’re looking for a quieter setting, Sutton is an ideal mix of suburban and urban living. It has a low crime rate and great access to amenities.


Home to prestigious schools and leafy roads, Harrow sits at the top of the safest boroughs in London.


Another place for those seeking a slower pace of life is Bexley; here you can stroll around charming parks for a study break.

Other London Boroughs

With its riveting history, from the ancient Roman settlement of Londinium to the modern-day districts like Hammersmith and Fulham, you can discover the stories behind each borough’s name.

City of London – Londinium

Around ad 43, a settlement named Londinium was established. Located on the current site of the City of London, Londinium served as a major commercial centre in Roman Britain until its abandonment in the 5th century. The name “London” originates from its Latinized form. While the City of London is not considered one of the current London boroughs, it remains the pulsating heart of the city, steeped in rich historical significance.

City of Westminster – West of the city

The churches were built to the west of the city. ‘Mynster’ is the Old English word for a church. As the very famous Abbey was built to the West of the ancient city, Westminster Abbey was born. The Abbey is also just west of the Palace of Westminster.

Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea – Landing Place for Chalk

In the Anglo-Saxon period, chalk was often used in fertiliser. Chelsea has many ancient spellings along the lines of Chelchith which means the wharf for chalk. Kensington is a place named after Mr Cynesige or Kenesigne.

Hammersmith and Fulham – The Forge and The Place of the Mud

These two districts were merged in 1965. Hammersmith has its name as it was a place where the blacksmiths forged hammers. Fulham, originally called ‘Fulanhamme’, has many possible meanings, one being ‘the place of the mud’.

Wandsworth – Waendel’s River

The River Wandle got its name from an Anglo-Saxon called Waendel who owned the surrounding land. Wandsworth takes its name from the River Wandle.

Lambeth – Landing Place for Lambs

Lambeth is a shortened version of the word Lambehitha – meaning a landing place for lambs.

Southwark – South Fort

Southwark was at the lowest bridging point of the River Thames in Roman Britain. It provided the only Thames Bridge for centuries allowing a crossing from Londinium. South fort comes from the name Suthriganaweorc and means ‘fort of the men of Surrey’.

Tower Hamlets – Home of the Tower of London

Forming the core of the East End, Tower Hamlets has had its name since 1554. This was a year where the Council of the Tower of London ordered a muster of ‘men of the hamlets which owe their service to the tower’.

Hackney – Island in the Marsh

Hackney was once pastoral, and it was apparently where horses were kept. The name was first recorded in 1198 AD was most likely derived from an island or a raised place in a marsh.

Islington – Gisla’s Hill

Islington was originally named Gisla’s Hill by the Saxons in the 11th century. The name was later converted to Isledon, this name denotes a hill (don). The name Islington arose in the 17th century.

Camden – Enclosed Valley

In Old English, the word Camden means Enclosed Valley. Surnames have been derived from the place name and it is a popular first name given to boys and girls today.

Brent – Holy One

Coming from a Celtic word meaning ‘high place’ or ‘holy one’, Brent predates Anglo-Saxons and the Romans as it is the most ancient London borough name of all.

Ealing – The followers of Gilla

The Saxon name for Ealing was recorded as ‘Gillingas’ meaning the people of Gilla, who may have been an Anglo-Saxon settler.

Hounslow – Hunting Island

In old records, Hounslow is spelt ‘Hundeslow’ meaning ‘the dog’s mound’ or ‘the mound of a man named or nicknamed hound.’ It is thought that the name is derived from ‘Honeslaw’ meaning an area of land suitable for hunting.

Royal Borough of Kingston Upon Thames – King’s Manor

Kingston was recorded as ‘Cyninges Tun’ in 838, meaning King’s Manor or Estate. Kingston was an ancient seat of kings and several 10th-century kings were crowned here.

Croydon – Saffron Valley

It is widely believed that Saffron was farmed in Croydon by the Romans. Croydon’s name derives from the Anglo-Saxon ‘Croh Denu’ meaning ‘Crocus Valley’. Crocus sativus, commonly known as saffron crocus, is a species of flowering plant of the Crocus genus in the iris family Iridaceae. It is best known for producing the spice saffron from the filaments that grow inside the flower.

Bromley – Bramble Clearing

Bromley is now the biggest London borough geographically speaking and its habitational name comes from Old English meaning ‘a woodland clearing’ and ‘bramble’.

Lewisham – Leof’s Dwelling

In ancient Saxon records, Lewisham is called Levesham, meaning the house among the meadows. It has also been named Leofshema which is thought to be derived from the Jute name Leof or Leofsa, with the hema bit being a variant on ‘ham’ or dwelling.

Royal Borough of Greenwich – Green Harbour

With Anglo-Saxon origins, London’s newest Royal Borough’s name stems from Grenewic, the green place on the bay. The town became the site of a royal palace, the Palace of Placentia from the 15th century.

Havering – The Followers of Haefer

Havering was once home to an important palace of Edward the Confessor. Its name is recorded in 1086 Domesday Book as Haueringas, for the followers of a man called something like Haefer.

Barking and Dagenham – The Settlement by the Birch Trees

Barking’s name comes from Anglo-Saxon Berecingas meaning the settlement by the birch trees. Dagenham first appeared in a document as Dæccanhaam in a charter of Barking Abbey dating from 666 AD.

Redbridge – A Red Bridge Which Bestrode The River Roding

Redbridge was named after the bridge made of red brick before being replaced in 1922. The bridge bestrode the River Roding from the 17th century.

Newham – New Marsh

With Newham only being formed in 1965, it is one of the few boroughs with a name that does not derive directly from ancient roots. The ‘ham’ part of the name indicates low-lying land surrounded by marsh.

Waltham Forest – Welcome Place

This London borough contains Walthamstow, which was originally called Wilcumestowe (meaning welcome place) but gradually morphed into Walthamstowe. Waltham meant ‘forest estate’.

Haringey – The Enclosure of Hering

Haringey was established as a settlement in the pre-Conquest county of Middlesex and is a name with Anglo-Saxon origins and derives from the Old English name Heringes-hege meaning ‘the enclosure of Hering’ or ‘of Hering’s people’.

Enfield – Field of Lambs

Enfield was named after the Anglo-Saxon word for lamb, which was ēan. Enfield was first recorded in the 1086 Domesday Book as a small settlement called Enefelde.

Barnet – Burning Woodland

Barnet derives its name from the Anglo-Saxon word ‘bærnet’, which suggests the clearing of woodland by burning. It was first recorded as Barneto in 1070.

Hillingdon – Hille’s Hill

A ‘don’ usually denotes a hill in Anglo-Saxon place names, and Hillingdon is no different. It’s in the 1086 Domesday Book as Hillendone, suggesting a hill belonging to a man called Hille.

Read More: One Day in London: An Itinerary

So, there you have it a list of all London’s boroughs. From the historic legacy of the City of London to the vibrant communities across the Royal Borough of Greenwich, each borough offers a unique glimpse into London’s past. Whether you’re strolling through the streets of Richmond Upon Thames or discovering the hidden gems of Havering, the diversity of London’s boroughs reflects the city’s rich cultural heritage


Joe Graham

Joe Graham

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