The wicks and wiches of London

Nuggets – bite size chunks of London

The wicks and wiches of London


The Lick on the Wick
A scene in Hack­ney Wick a few years ago

The Old Eng­lish word wīc came – prob­a­bly via Old Frisian and/or oth­er Ger­man­ic lan­guages – from the Latin vīcus, mean­ing a com­pact set­tle­ment, neigh­bor­hood or estate. This could have been any­thing from a group of adja­cent build­ings (such as a sin­gle street or a set of farm build­ings) to a whole vil­lage.

Although the word wīc could be applied to all sorts of small set­tle­ments, as time went by it was increas­ing­ly used for places where buy­ing and sell­ing went on. There are con­flict­ing expla­na­tions for why the word’s mean­ing might have evolved in this way. One the­o­ry is that Romans who stayed on in Britain after the con­trac­tion of their empire often became traders – and they used this Latin-derived word for their enter­pris­es.

Sev­er­al cen­turies lat­er, the Vikings and oth­er Norse maraud­ers used the word vík (angli­cised as wik) to denote a creek, inlet or cove: an ide­al place at first to mount an inva­sion and then to set up a trad­ing post. Away from cer­tain obvi­ous coastal loca­tions, it can be hard to dis­tin­guish which place names may have begun as a wīc and which as a wik.

As Old Eng­lish became Mid­dle Eng­lish, wīc and wik both became ‘wick’ – or some­times ‘wich’ (or ‘wych’ and also ‘wike’ in the north of Eng­land). The Oxford Eng­lish Dic­tio­nary admits that the ques­tion of why one local­i­ty took the suf­fix ‘wick’ while anoth­er near­by place took ‘wich’ “presents dif­fi­cul­ties” – which is to say it’s a bit of a mys­tery.

In some parts of the coun­try, the suf­fix ‘wich’ was append­ed to the names of places where salt was extract­ed and mar­ket­ed – as in Droitwich and Nantwich – and there’s a dis­tinc­tive the­o­ry as to why this hap­pened. But in the Lon­don area the two most com­mon types of wicks and wich­es were:

a) Out­ly­ing farms, often where dairy cat­tle were reared and but­ter and cheese were made and sold.

These were usu­al­ly named after:

b) River­side land­ing places where goods were brought ashore and sold.

Some of these place names may have been derived from – or at least influ­enced by – Viking nomen­cla­ture. As with the dairy farms, they might be be named after:

  • the place they served – as in Hamp­ton Wick, which may have specif­i­cal­ly pro­vi­sioned the manor house that became Hamp­ton Court
  • the goods in which they spe­cialised – as in Wool­wich
  • some oth­er defin­ing char­ac­ter­is­tic – for exam­ple the pres­ence of much green­ery in Green­wich (shown below) or the antiq­ui­ty of Ald­wych (Old Wick).

The old mar­ket at Ald­wych was almost cer­tain­ly the locus of the great­est wick of them all: Lun­den­wic (also writ­ten as vico Lun­donie), the Sax­on trad­ing set­tle­ment that grew up to the west of the aban­doned Roman Lon­dini­um and flour­ished from the 7th to the 9th cen­tu­ry.
Greenwich, early morning, some years ago

Thanks to Judith Dyson for the inspiration for this article