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White Placenames

White Placenames


Having posted a page on ‘Black Dartmoor‘ it only seems logical to compile one on ‘White Dartmoor’ which once again poses a few variations. William Crossing wrote; “The occurrence of the name White, as in White Tor, White Lake, White Barrow, and in other connections, is supposed, with excellent reason, to be due to the presence of the tinners on the moor, as it most certainly is in White Works,”, p.48. Whilst in some cases his statement is true there are many other Dartmoor place-names where the descriptive element of ‘white’ has no association with tinning or tinners.

The etymology of the word ‘white’ stems back to the Anglo Saxon word hwit which can mean; bright, radiant, glistening, clear etc. Clark Hall, p.199. As far as the tin connection goes this could well apply to to the mineral Cassiterite from which tin is obtained as it does ‘glisten’ and when the actual tin is made this too could be described as ‘radiant’ or ‘bright’.

However, tin was not the only natural resource to be found on Dartmoor, China Clay or Kaolin has been extracted for centuries around the southern edge of the moor. Anybody who has visited the Shaugh Prior area will know that there is ample evidence of a ‘white’ landscape, hence there is a location called ‘Whitehill Yeo’ and Whithill Tor.

In areas where limestone has been quarried the ‘white’ element could well refer to the colour of the landscape where the rock has been exposed thus giving a bright white appearance to any features.

In the case of prehistoric ritual features such as cairns again the name could stem from the contrasting bright colour of the granite, especially when the sunlight reflects off any quartz in the rock, the same idea may be applied to some tors, rocks, walls etc.

There are then are the place-names where the ‘white’ element is of a personal nature and refers to a surname such as; White’s Babeny or White’s Slade. We then come to the places where the ‘white’ element refers to the actual colour, in the case of fields or enclosures this alludes to the colour of the land surface, again deriving from the old Anglo Saxon word hwit, Field, p.254, as in Whitey Mead. In some cases the old word hwit can be taken to mean infertile which in the context of land may well also apply. In the case of tracts of boggy moorland the place-names with a ‘white’ element possibly could indicate a profusion of white vegetation such as cotton grass which would/will easily give a white appearance when viewed from a distance.

In the case of man-made structures such as the two White Gates which were literally painted white gates the colour description also applies. Additionally there are locations where the ‘white’ element describes, for whatever reason, a creature as in Whitehorse Hill, White Oxen Manor or the mythical White Lady Falls.

Another possible meaning of the shortened ‘white’ – ‘whit’ could come from the Old English word wiht which means ‘bend’, Ekwall, p.313, and could apply to White Lake or White Water thus giving ‘lake with the bends’? However, with regards to water courses the ‘white’ descriptive may well indicate streams etc that are often in spate giving the appearance of ‘white water’.

Below is a list of some of the Dartmoor place-names that have a ‘white’ descriptive element but there are numerous others when one takes into consideration the associated locations of the original place-name, ie. White Moor, White Moor Stone and White Moor Circle. Some of the information listed below have been taken from Mike Brown’s ‘Gazetteer of Dartmoor Place names’.


WHIT HILL TOR SX 5745 6152 Tor AKA Torry Combe Tor
WHIT RIDGE SX 647     822 Ridge AKA White Ridge.
WHIT TOR SX 542     787 Tor AKA Peter Tor.
WHITCHURCH SX 49                   72 Village
WHITE BARROW SX 5685 7931 Tumulus A cairn
WHITE BRIDGE SX 6003 9192 Bridge
WHITE GATE SX 5774 7593 Gate
WHITE GATE SX 7417 7615 Gate AKA Hemsworthy Gate.
WHITE HILL SX 534     838 Hill
WHITE HILL SX 674     778 Hill
WHITE HILLS SX 56                     63 Hill
WHITE LADY WATERFALL SX 5010 8351 Waterfall
WHITE LAKE SX 552     782 Lake AKA The Peter Tavy Brook,
WHITE MOOR SX 633     892 Moor
WHITE OXEN MANOR SX 7237 6189 Manor
WHITE PITS SX 629     898 Pit Tin workings.
WHITE RIDGE SX 647     822 Ridge AKA Whit Ridge.
WHITE ROCK SX             573? 730? Rock
WHITE WALLS HEAD SX 7362 7326 Cairn Disappeared.
WHITE WATER SX 701     896 Water
WHITE WOOD SX 693     718 Wood
WHITEABURY SX 7200 8853 Habitation
WHITEHEDGES SX 6870 6900 Enclosure
WHITEHILL TOR SX 5739 6149 Tor AKA Torry Combe Tor.
WHITEHILL YEO PITS SX 58    63 Works China Clay works
WHITEHORSE GATE SX ???     ??? Gate
WHITEHORSE HILL SX 61                   85 Hill
WHITEOXEN ARCH SX 7407 6728 Miscellany
WHITE’S BABENY SX 6611 7625 Ancient Tenement AKA Babeny.
WHITE’S SLADE SX 6611 7625 Habitation AKA Snaily House.
WHITESTONE SX ???     ??? Miscellany
WHITEWORKS MINE SX 613     710 Tin Mine AKA Wheal Industry
WHITEWORKS, THE SX             639     887 Miscellany Tinners pits. AKA. Whitey Works
WHITEY CROSS SX 7655 6951 Crossroads
WHITEY MEAD SX 648     650 Meads
WHITEY WORKS SX 639     887 Miscellany Tinners pits – AKA. The Whiteworks
WHITEYWORKS MIRE SX 639     887 Mire
WHITHEHEDGES SX 687     690 Miscellany
WHITMOOR MARSH SX 651     891 Marsh AKA Kennon Mires
WHITTABARROW COMBE SX 735     715 Combe Middle reach of Blackslade water.
WHITTEN TOR SX 620     780 Tor AKA Higher White Tor  and Waydon Tor.

To demonstrate the fact that trying to define the roots of a place-name can be difficult one only has to look at thyose of Whitchurch. The village of Whitchurch and its adjacent Down is interesting as the Place-Name Society suggests that the name stemmed from the fact that the later church was built from granite which when freshly quarried would have given a ‘white’ appearance, Glover et. al. p.247p. Therefore logically speaking Whitchurch Down should refer to the ‘Down of the White Church’ but according to the Place-Name Society the first documented name is Werydon which had mutated from the Anglo Saxon word wearg, Glover et. al, p.248. This translates as an outlaw or criminal, Clark Hall, p.399, which may well imply that there was a gallows on the down thus giving the ‘hill of the outlaws’? Nothing is ever ‘black or white’ when it comes to Toponymy.

White Placenames

Brown, M. 1995. The Gazetteer of Dartmoor Place Names. Liverton: Forest Publishing.

Clark Hall, J.R. 2004. A Concise Anglo-Saxon Dictionary. Canada: Cambridge University Press.

Crossing, W. 1996. Crossing’s Dartmoor Worker. Newton Abbot: David & Charles.

Ekwall, E. 1980. The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Place Names. London: Oxford University Press.

Field, J. 1989. English Field Names. Gloucester: Alan Sutton Publishing.

About Tim Sandles

Tim Sandles is the founder of Legendary Dartmoor

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