Beaconsfield people pronounce the name of their town as “Bekkensfield” and those from out of the area pronounce it as “Beaconsfield”, which makes them easy to distinguish from residents. Why is the local pronunciation of the name of the town different to the spelling?
A clearing in the beech woods
The first written evidence of the existence of Beaconsfield is in 1184 when it was referred to as Bekenesfelde in a pipe roll. Hunt & Thorpe in “Beaconsfield, A History” provide other early references around 1200 when local farms and land were sold. Mentions during the 13th century, in various other documents, all give spellings such as Bekenefeld, Beckenesfeld, Becnefeld and Bekenfeld which seems to indicate that the local pronunciation (not the modern day spelling which may have come into being around 1720) is historically correct. As a result, it is thought that the beck sound comes from the OE (Old English) word bēce meaning beech tree, and feld, means a field or clearing, hence “Bekkensfield”. This would make sense as there are large numbers of beech and other deciduous trees (Burnham Beeches for example) to this day in the area and nothing to do with a beacon. .
A beacon in a field
However, the Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Place-names says that the name Beaconsfield comes from the “feld by the beacon”, taking their lead from Mawer and Stanton (1925) Place Names of Buckinghamshire which states:
“OE bēacnes-feld, a genitival compound denoting apparently ‘open land marked by a beacen’ v. feld. This is our word beacon but its sense here is uncertain. Beaconsfield stands high and a ‘beacon’ fire may have been lighted here.”
The problem with this definition is that there is no record of a beacon being lit in Beaconsfield during any emergency in the past. However there are records of Thomas de la Penn constructing a ‘bekyn’ to warn should an enemy invade (and the road named Beacon Hill is extant evidence of the Penn beacon). Therefore, it could be that the name Beaconsfield refers to open land near to a beacon.
No doubt the debate on the origins of the name will go on, but along with Beaconsfield Town Council and the Beaconsfield Old Town Association, the Beaconsfield & District Historical Society has decided to feature a beech tree as part of its logo. We feel that the beech tree, in a scroll (referencing the charter given by Henry III to hold a Tuesday market in 1255) best sums up the Society and our continuing quest to preserve and promote the history of the town.