The name 'Hammerwich'

David Parsons (University of Aberystwyth)

Everyone in this room, I am sure, shared the experience of wonder and excitement when first they heard of the discovery of this extraordinary hoard - whether that was via a professional inside-track, or later through the media. But there were, I suspect, only a few of us who were lucky enough to experience a second moment of epiphany at a slightly later date. Because for most people, the announcement of the finding of the 'Staffordshire' hoard came some time before the disclosure of the precise find-spot. If I shared the general frisson at the original discovery, then, after learning that the artefacts had turned up in a field on the edge of Hammerwich, my mouth gaped wide, my breath was quite taken away, you could have knocked me down with a feather.

To explain my astonishment - and to spin this out to my full ten minutes - let me take you back in time, by about 15 years, or by nearly 1300, depending on point of view. In the mid-1990s I became interested, quite by chance, in a name in an early-eighth-century Anglo-Saxon charter. The document related to holdings in the salt-making district near Droitwich in Worcestershire; and indeed in its terms it specifically related to that industry, recording an exchange of salt-houses between king Æthelbald of Mercia and the church of Worcester. One of the specified locations was called Lootwic, and this was the name that attracted my attention. For Lootwic appears strikingly representative of the industry that explicitly was carried on there in the eighth century. Most obviously, wich in the inland salt-making areas of Worcestershire, Staffordshire and Cheshire evidently developed the sense 'salt-works' (Droitwich, Upwich, Nantwich, Middlewich are major centres). Less obviously, the first element lōt also firmly belongs to the same industry. When the enquiring minds of seventeenth-century gentlemen investigated the arcane ways of surviving ancient industries, they described their technologies and specialised terminology. A loot, in Droitwich in the seventeenth century, was a sort of scoop or shovel used by the salt-makers. There are Germanic cognates too, which indicate that the word has a history that goes back to early times on the continent; and we know from archaeology not only that the industry in Droitwich is very ancient, but also that the very object-type that was described and drawn in the seventeenth century was in use in the early medieval period. Evidently, the loot, the salt-makers' shovel, was a characteristic tool from Anglo-Saxon to modern times, and there is little doubt that in Lootwic we have a name descriptive of a place where they were used, or perhaps made.

Let us think some more about this element wīc or wich. As we have seen, the word means 'salt-works' in relevant parts of the western midlands; you will probably know that it is also often glossed 'dairy-farm'; archaeologists will certainly recognize it as the term for a middle Saxon trading emporium - Ipswich, Hamwic (Southampton), Lundenwic - ; and linguists will see that it is a borrowing, of Latin vicus, a settlement-term with various connotations, depending on locality and date. At first sight this range of application seems very disparate, but in fact the element is much-studied and by now rather well understood. Work by the great Swede, Eilert Ekwall, by Hugh Smith, by Richard Coates (1999) and by Peter Kitson, has established the essential features of an Anglo-Saxon wich.

These include a dependency on other, larger settlement-units and, not unrelated, an application to sites of specialised production and/or trade. We would not expect wīc to denote an 'ordinary' subsistence farm; it is a site, typically dependent on another estate centre, where some specialised activity was pursued. Where that activity was common in one district or another, then particularization of meaning sometimes occurred: hence 'salt-works' arose where salt-production was the principal industry; 'dairy-farm' similarly prevailed elsewhere.

How exactly the English usage arose is difficult to judge. Richard Coates has argued that a sense of dependency was inherited from the Latin term. Margaret Gelling made a persuasive case that in the compound wīcham there was a significant association with Romano-British remains, though the precise connotations of vicus at that time are unclear. Some commentators have suggested that many more wicks than the wichams should be directly associated with Roman-period survivals, though this is a hypothesis that is difficult to sustain in general, and in some areas seems to make no sense at all. Rather, it is clear that as a loanword wīc went native within Old English, and that it acquired or maintained an association with industrial, specialist agricultural and/or trading sites. Besides the trade examples and the salt-wiches I mentioned above, examples of dairy-specialisation are particularly common - at least seven Butterwicks, Cheswick, Chiswick and Keswick, with 'cheese' - then there is Spitchwick with 'bacon', Honeywick in Sussex, Woolwich, Herdwick, Shapwick and Skipwith with sheep, Oxwick, Fisherwick and so on. In berewick there is a compound, 'barley-wich', which in time gained a life of its own: a dependent, specialised, arable unit producing grain for the demesne manor.

And so to Hammerwich, and you will have spotted the relevance of my Lootwic salt-works. In seeking a parallel for tool-name plus wīc, Hammerwich was the obvious name for me to find, and it is a good equivalent. Tool-names in place-names are very rare, it is true, and further exact parallels are not ready to hand. But Hammerwich fits into a nexus of names that leave little room for doubt. Amongst the clearest examples of wīc as an industrial site are two instances of Smethwick in Staffordshire and Cheshire, and a lost Smithwick in Sussex: these are all clearly smithies. Beside them should of course be placed Hammersmith in London, comprising the tool-name 'hammer' plus Old English smiððe 'smithy'. Evidently our two elements could be used in this way; and indeed as we have seen wich is generally distinctive of sites of production or trade. It is hard to conclude anything other than that the name Hammerwich denotes a smithy, a metal-working site. So that is what took my breath away when I learnt of the location of the Staffordshire hoard.

Of course, there must be no jumping to conclusions. After all, the presentation of this hoard to date has resisted any temptation to take up this detail. Why, I wonder, is that? Well, I referred earlier to the great Eilert Ekwall, the Swedish scholar who casts a huge, and generally very benevolent shadow, over later work. His Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Place-Names appeared in 1936, and was revised in 1960. If non-specialists own one place-name volume, this is likely to be it. And Ekwall suggests that Hammerwich contains the word 'hammer' not in a literal sense, but in a transferred topographical application, evidenced for its Norse cognate. Unfortunately, great though Ekwall is, this is something of a non-starter of an explanation for Hammerwich. Norse hamarr is used of dramatic overhanging cliff features, resembling hammer-heads; our place, as we have seen, has gentle slopes and ridges, but nothing extraordinary. And besides, there is no good evidence elsewhere that Old English hammer was used in this topographical way at all: the only plausible examples in England are in Lancashire and Yorkshire and much more probably involve the Scandinavian term. Set beside the contextual evidence for the name-type, which we have seen, there is no contest, and the scholarly dictionaries published since 1960 - David Mills' Oxford Dictionary of 1991, and Victor Watts' Cambridge version of 2004 - both think that Hammerwich is a smithy and don't even mention Ekwall's alternative.

In my view, also, there is not much doubt about the etymology of Hammerwich. That is still not to say that there must be a link with the appearance of the most extraordinary hoard of Anglo-Saxon metalwork. Coincidences happen, though statistically this is quite a good one: we reckon on something like 14,000 parish names in England, and perhaps a dozen of them do, or might, refer to metalworking: the association of such a hoard with one of them is intriguing, at least. And I shall wrap up my observations as follows. There may indeed be no connection, but we could look at it like this: we have only two pinpricks of light from the pre-Conquest period in this immediate area. One is a unique hoard of precious metalwork; the other is a place-name that implies metalworking. It seems to me that in the conjunction we have at least something, some clue as to a possible context for the find. It is a clue that surely deserves particular attention and examination in the further study of the material remains themselves.


  • Richard Coates (1999) 'New light from old wicks: the progeny of Latin vicus', Nomina 22, 75-116.