Geographical puzzles

At the weekend, I was on an Underground train which stopped at East Ham and at Aldgate East. I started wondering about these two constructions.

It is easy enough to gather data from a map index. Here are names of stations, former stations, and tram stops in the London area, which contain a direction. In each category the heading gives the total number, and they are classified into the Aldgate East, East Ham and Eastcote patterns.

North (23):

  • Bromley North, Chessington North, Clapham North, Hertford North, Watford North
  • North Acton, North Dulwich, North Ealing, North Greenwich, North Harrow, North Sheen, North Wembley, North Woolwich
  • Norbiton, Norbury, Northfields, Northolt, Northolt Park, Northumberland Park, Northwick, Northwood, Northwood Hills, Norwood Junction

South (28)

  • Bromley South, Chessington South, Clapham South, Coulsdon South, Morden South, Whyteleafe South
  • South Acton, South Bermondsey, South Croydon, South Ealing, South Greenford, South Hampstead, South Harrow, South Kensington, South Kenton, South Merton, South Quay, South Ruislip, South Tottenham, South Wimbledon, South Woodford
  • Southall, Southbury, Southfields, Southgate, Southwark, Surbiton, Sutton

East (15):

  • Aldgate East, Dagenham East, Ewell East, Hertford East, Hounslow East, Mill Hill East, Penge East
  • East Acton, East Croydon, East Dulwich, East Finchley, East Ham, East India, East Putney
  • Eastcote

West (26):

  • Ewell West, Hounslow West, Kentish Town West, Penge West, Watford West
  • West Acton, West Brompton, West Byfleet, West Croydon, West Drayton, West Dulwich, West Ealing, West Finchley, West Ham, West Hampstead, West Harrow, West India Quay, West Kensington, West Norwood, West Ruislip, West Sutton, West Wickham
  • Westbourne Park, Westcombe Park, Westferry, Westminster

And here are some other variants of names occurring in the above lists:

  • Acton Central/Main Line/Town, Byfleet & New Haw, Clapham Common/High Street, Dagenham Dock/Heathway, Harrow-on-the-Hill, High Street Kensington and Kensington Olympia, Hampstead, Hampstead Heath, Hounslow Central, Kentish Town, Kenton, Merton Park, Mill Hill Broadway, Morden, Morden Road, Ruislip, Ruislip Gardens/Manor, Tottenham Hale, Watford, Watford High Street/Junction, Whyteleafe, Wimbledon, Woodford

So here are three questions:

  1. Is there any reason for the different position of the placename elements in these names?
  2. Is there any reason why “East” is so much less common than the others? I suspect it is because, in London, the East End has always had a bad reputation, and as a result the direction has a negative connotation.
  3. What is the situation in other large cities?

English placenames are often double-barrelled. Often this was because an existing Anglo-Saxon name gained an affix in Norman times or later based on who was then in possession of the manor. Thus, for example, Tooting Bec and Tooting Graveney were owned by the Abbey of Bec and the Graveney family respectively; Kings Langley and Abbots Langley were owned by the king and the Abbot of St Albans respectively. But this doesn’t explain how directions were added to the names.

The rule cannot be simple. We have Hounslow Central and East, but Finchley Central and East Finchley. Notice that “Central” always follows the placename, but this is not true for other additives such as High Street Kensington. (But note Watford High Street.)

Often names were changed when railway companies came to build stations. Sometimes this was later corrected; so Handborough near Oxford reverted to Hanborough. But the London borough of Haringey has stations at Harringay and Harringay Green Lanes. Maybe arbitrary decisions by railway companies were responsible for the phenomenon I’ve noticed here.

Someone told me recently that the rule for the numbering of London bus routes is that there is no rule, it is random. Is the same true for station names?

About Peter Cameron

I count all the things that need to be counted.
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12 Responses to Geographical puzzles

  1. Nigel White says:

    I thought as a general rule that if the directional suffix prededed the place name this was because there was already a defined distinct area adopting this name before the station was built, whereas it is placed after the name if it was a result of building more than one station in an area and needing to distinguish between them. Though no doubt there are examples which prove this general rule wrong.

    The London Borough of Haringey was formed in 1965 from the previous Middlesex Boroughs of Hornsey, Wood Green, and Tottenham. As was common with the new London Boroughs (e.g. Redbridge, Havering) they were named after one of the lesser districts so as not to offend the the major areas from which they were formed. Apocryphally, the spelling was changed from Harringay to Haringey for the Borough to keep the same ending as in Hornsey, but the district remained Harringay. (Though, I’m not sure why it also lost an ‘r’ so the story may not be true.)

    • The rule certainly fits East Ham and Aldgate East. I would be a bit surprised if all the various Actons were areas with distinct names before the railway was built.

      • Nigel White says:

        Looking at an 1885 map there were disctint communities named East Acton, Acton Green & Acton Vale which preceded the arrival of the railway.
        In fact, a number of ecclesiatical parishes were split out of Acton at various times: East Acton (1880), North Acton (1931), South Acton (1873), West Acton (1907), Acton Green (1889), Acton Vale (1915).
        So when South Acton station opened in c.1880 it would have been logical to use the South as a prefix. I guess as the other Actons opened they didn’t want to mix suffixes and prefixes.

  2. Colin Reid says:

    ‘Ham’ is an odd one. Both West Ham and East Ham are in east London (and not adjacent if the Tube map is anything to go by) while ‘Ham’ on its own is in south-west London. Similarly, London has two Bromleys, which were distinguished by adding ‘-by-Bow’ to one of the station names.

    Several parts of London are named after stations, rather than the other way round. For instance Queensbury station was named following a newspaper competition and doesn’t refer to any historical queen or placename.

    • There’s also the “Estate Agent” syndrome, when the name of the nearest tube station is used to describe an area, even if it makes grammatical nonsense. For instance, one will often see ads like “1 bedroom flat in Gloucester Road”–one presumes that the flat is not actually in the middle of the road itself….

  3. Hugh Flouch says:

    There is a difference between Harringay and Haringey – see the short version at and the longer version at

    As to the station names, both have been through quite a few changes.

    For Harringay Green Lanes, see

    For Harringay, see

  4. Bus numbers in London may be randomly attributed now, but some older route numbers are still based on a block-allocation system introduced in 1934.

    1 – 199 Central Area double-deck routes
    200 – 289 Central Area single-deck routes
    290 – 299 Central Area night routes
    300 – 399 Country Area (north) routes
    400 – 499 Country Area (south) routes

  5. Thanks everyone! It is gratifying (and humbling) that when I toss out some half-baked thoughts, others take them seriously and give me such an abundance of information.

    I would still like to know whether the London prejudice against East is shared by other cities, and thoughts on why it might have happened.

    • Jess Enright says:

      I’ve heard people claim that the east ends of cities in the northern hemisphere tend to be poorer because of prevailing winds and pollution. (example: )

      I’ve never seen a careful checking of this, so I’m not sure if I believe it.

      • I’ve heard that theory before, but in reverse: in many of the one-time industrial towns and cities in the Midlands and the north of England, the west or south-west are often among the more affluent areas. This is certainly true in my home town of Wolverhampton, but also seems to apply to Birmingham, Manchester and Sheffield, for instance.
        (This observation was made when of the bunch of middle-class kids I once shared a student flat with, several of us observed that we were all from the south-west of our home towns….)

  6. Colin says:

    Diamon’s comment hold up to a point. Based on my boyhood in the Harrow/Pinner area in the 50s/60s. The 183 was certainly double decker.

    But also D/Ds were the 209, a circuitous route serving parts of Harrow, Ruislip and Pinner. Also the 230 which ran from Rayners Lane to northwick Park via the low bridge at Wealdstone – until the old DD needed replacing and it became the H1.

  7. Wada charles says:

    I like the attention to detail that u demonstrated,it really help peeps like me-who have never been to the uk.

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